February 21, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Genesis 3:19
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
On Ash Wednesday many Christians throughout the world will hear some version of these familiar words: “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” Today we are reminded of our mortality, of the way sin has hurt and corrupted us. Today we sense once again how much we need a Savior. Today we begin to prepare our hearts for the celebration of Jesus the Savior, whose death and resurrection give us true life. Today, we start to get ready for Good Friday and Easter.
“Dust you are and to dust you will return.” To me, that’s one of the most familiar lines in all of Scripture. I’ve repeated this line to men, women, and children at least 2,000 times throughout my life.
Now, if you’re not familiar with Christian practices related to Ash Wednesday, what I just said probably sounds odd to you. Why in the world would anyone say such a thing to people, not to mention thousands of times? But if you have participated in an Ash Wednesday worship service, you no doubt realize that when I said, “Dust you are and to dust you will return” it was in the context of imposing ashes on the foreheads of worshipers. That’s the sort of thing pastors and other church leaders do on Ash Wednesday, at least in many Christian traditions.
Growing up in the church, I never heard my pastor say to me, “Dust you are and to dust you will return” or anything remotely like that. You see, I did not grow up in a church that recognized Ash Wednesday. But, thirty-two years ago, I found myself as the senior pastor of a Presbyterian church that deeply valued its commemoration of Ash Wednesday. Irvine Presbyterian Church sponsored an Ash Wednesday service, complete with the imposition of ashes (placing ashes on people’s foreheads). And I was supposed to lead that service! So I quickly had to learn something about this special day. Not only did I discover many things about the meaning of Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian season of Lent, but also I learned how to impose ashes in the form of a small cross and to say as I did, “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Ash-imposers use various versions of this statement, as you might imagine.)
Ash Wednesday is a day many Christians recognize as a holiday, a “holy day.” Other believers, however, do not recognize Ash Wednesday or Lent because Scripture does not require acknowledgment of these days. Yet, no matter your personal practice, the themes of Ash Wednesday and Lent are deeply shaped by biblical revelation. In particular, Ash Wednesday is a day to remember our humanness and mortality. It is a day to begin the season of Lent, a time for reflection, penitence, and preparation for Easter. (If you’d like to learn more about Ash Wednesday, you might find helpful a short piece I’ve written on the subject: What is Ash Wednesday? How Do We Observe It? Why Should We?)
There is bad news in Ash Wednesday services. As you may recall, the line “Dust you are and to dust you will return” was spoken by God to Adam after he had sinned. Whereas Adam once enjoyed the reality of deathless life in God’s perfect creation, after he sinned his body would die. In time, he would return to the dust from which he was made. Therefore, “To dust you will return” was bad news for Adam. And it is bad news for us as well. Like Adam, we have come from dust and to dust we will return. Throughout our lives, our dusty bodies remind us of our mortality: when they get sick, when they work imperfectly, when they age, or when they stop working altogether. Often, our bodies are the instruments of sin rather than instruments of God-honoring work and worship.
Of course, many good things come from our bodies, including new human life, fulfilling work, loving embraces, and acts of charity. The inherent goodness of our bodies has not been obliterated by sin, though it has been tarnished and twisted. Ash Wednesday reminds us of this bad news. It invites us into a time of extended contemplation and contrition as we consider during Lent just how much we need God to save us from our sin.
But Ash Wednesday also stirs up hope. The ashes that are imposed on our heads form the shape of a cross. Sometimes these crosses are obvious; sometimes more subtle. But the very symbol that emphasizes our mortality and sin also alludes to that which will set us free. It reminds us that God has entered into our human condition in order to break the power of sin and welcome us into the fullness of life through the cross.
Yet Ash Wednesday is not Good Friday. Nor is it Easter Sunday. It is not a day to focus on the cross and its meaning so much as a time to begin to realize just how much we need the cross. Thus, Ash Wednesday points ahead, to the season of Lent, to Holy Week that comes at the end of Lent, and most of all to the cross of Christ. Jesus took upon himself our “dustiness,” our mortality, yes, even our sin, so that we might experience the fullness of life, abundant life, eternal life through God’s grace. Ash Wednesday reminds us of just how much we need that life. It invites us into a season of contemplation and preparation.
How have you experienced Ash Wednesday in your life, if at all?
What reminds you of your mortality, your “dustiness”?
Do you think it’s a good thing for Christians to focus on our mortality? Why or why not?
What might you do in Lent, the next 40 days plus six Sundays, to prepare for a deeper experience of the reality of Good Friday and a more joyous celebration of the truth of Easter?
As you sense God’s guidance, choose to do something in Lent that will help you to draw near to God. You might choose to fast from something you enjoy. You might choose to add a spiritual discipline to your life. Do whatever you sense God leading you to do.
Gracious God, you created human beings in your own image. Yet we have tarnished that image through our sin. We have corrupted both ourselves and our world. We are “dusty” mortals who will die. We are sinners in need of a savior.
O Lord, I experience my “dustiness” in so many different ways. Usually, I try to ignore it or complain about it. But, today, I am letting the fact of my mortality sink in. I am reminded of how much I need to be saved and set free. I am reminded of how much I need you to save me!
As we begin the season of Lent, may this be, indeed, a time for me to grow in my relationship with you. May I be unafraid to look at myself honestly, especially those parts of my life that are all too “dusty.” May I turn to you in this season in a special way, so that I might be prepared to celebrate the amazing truth of Good Friday and Easter.
All praise be to you, O God, because you have not abandoned me in my mortality. All praise be to you for the hope that you give. Amen.
Banner image by Annika Gordon on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: People Fall into Sin in Work (Genesis 3:1-24).
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.