A sermon preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Ash Wednesday: The 1st Day of Lent, March 6, 2019
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”(1)
On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we hear these words first spoken by the voice of God to the man and woman in the Garden of Eden. These words were a reminder of human mortality and a declaration of the loss of innocence and life’s purpose.
The whole created order was established by God for God and humankind to dwell in intimate, eternal harmony. But the ideal, the reality God had created was shattered by human disobedience. So, God spoke, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Last week, on a rainy, overcast day, suddenly, the sky opened and sunlight burst into the room! Looking toward the window, I beheld particles of dust, otherwise nearly invisible, now highlighted by the sunlight, floating in the air. Transfixed, I contemplated the life-cycle of dust.
Dust. It lies around loosely, gets stirred up easily, flies about aimlessly, and lands again lightly; repeating this sequence each time the air flow shifts direction or someone passes through the room.
Today, we are reminded that we are dust. I’m not sure I like that! However, on second thought, I must concede, indeed, as it is Ash Wednesday, I must confess (though I dare not speak for you) that I am like dust.
At times, I lie around loosely. Even when I’m deeply engaged, tending to my responsibilities, there are moments when I’m not sure about my life’s purpose. The sun rises and goes down; the next morn, rising again. And sometimes I wonder, what’s the point? What have I accomplished? What is the greater, let alone eternal good I’ve achieved?
And, I also confess, like dust, I can be stirred up easily. I’m an emotional person, with deep feelings, passions. When people, when I don’t do what I think we ought or when circumstances in my life or in the world around me go awry, I get stirred up! I fly around aimlessly until I calm down and land again (although perhaps not too lightly!); all to repeat the cycle the next time something or someone disturbs me.
In a few moments, we will have the sign of the cross marked on our foreheads with ashes and with those words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”(2)
In the baptismal liturgy, the sign of the cross is marked on our foreheads, not with ash, but with oil and with the words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”(3)
These two actions of marking with the sign of the cross, one with ash, the other with oil, are symbols of the same thing. Redemption. That act through which we are being called back, brought back into right relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves as God intended in the beginning.
Yes, we are dust. We are mortal. We, one day, will die.
Yet, as dust, we share a common humanity. Each of us is part of every human being, irrespective of differences of gender and race, culture and class, origin and ethnicity. We all belong to one another.
In this, I believe, lies the restoration of our sense of our life’s purpose: To live lives of common, perhaps, given the way this world is, uncommon compassion with one another.
This is the work of Lent: To remember, to revive this truth in our daily living. And such remembrance, such a revival we surely, sorely need. For we human beings spend so much time and energy living otherwise.
(1) Genesis 3.19
(2) The Book of Common Prayer (BCP), page 265
(3) BCP, page 308