“Remember that you are from dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of our journey to the cross. We do not travel alone, and we are not leading the way. We follow in the footsteps of Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem. The journey will take us some 40-odd days. But when we arrive at the destination of the cross, we will see firsthand what love truly looks like.
Our faith is based on remembrance. Our communion table is etched with Jesus’s own words: “Do this in remembrance of me.” When our church gathers together, we rightly remember Christ’s words, his ministry, his miracles, his sacrifice and his love.
But we are called to remember far more than that.
We are to remember our ancestors of faith in God’s Chosen People—the nation of Israel. We are to recall their struggles. We are to remember their triumphs. We are to remember that like them, we too were once slaves in captivity. We remember God’s liberating power. We remember His promises to the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets and the judges. We remember that God is Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and King.
Although this sounds like a comprehensive list of remembrances, there is but one more significant thing to recall:
“Remember. You are from dust. And to dust you shall return.”
It is a familiar trope in literature, folklore and film. The child leaves home with the well-intentioned admonition from a parent:
“Remember who you are, son. Remember your family name.”
“Don’t forget where you are from, daughter. Don’t fail to recall the people who shaped your life.”
In these moments, the listener is reminded that our identity is shaped by our past. The truth about our beginnings is the True North that will keep us focused and centered when we venture away from the familiar.
It is significant, then, that we remember who we are in the grand scheme of things. We remember the truth about ourselves so that we can be clear about where our power and redemption come from. We are the created. God is the Creator.
Lent is a season that confronts us with this truth. We are not our own gods. We cannot save ourselves. The One True God has made a promise with us and we have willfully broken the covenant through disobedience and unfaithfulness.
Remembering our sin during the season of Lent does figure prominently, but not in the way we might assume. The purpose of remembering our sin is not to flog ourselves, but to remind us of our absolute need for Jesus.
John the Evangelist says it well:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
-1 John 1:5-10
When we remember faithfully who we are, what we’ve become, and who God is calling us to be, God provides us with the gift of perspective. When we accept the ashes and begin our pilgrimage with Christ to the cross, the way in which we see ourselves can be reoriented. We do not belong to ourselves. We belong to the One who has created us. And because of the saving love of Christ Jesus, we belong to the One who has bought and redeemed us.
We may be dust. But during Lent, we are able to remember that we are dust worth dying for.