“From dust you have come. To dust you will return.”
During our Ash Wednesday worship service, I repeated that phrase one hundred times. Each time, I drew a little cross with my finger, as I said the words, “From dust you have come. To dust you will return.”
Again, and again, I pressed my thumb into the bowl of ashes. I felt the texture of the ashes. They had been dry palm leaves only a few hours earlier. After burning the leaves in the church parking lot, I scooped the ashes into a bowl, put in a few drops of oil, and mixed the slurry with my finger. Then, I tested my mix on the back of my hand. It was ready.
Preparing for various worship services can feel mundane, like a list of tasks. Prepare the ashes. Check. Review the liturgy. Check. Write a homily. Check.
Beyond the list of jobs, worship must always point to something mystical, something beyond our ability to comprehend. At the start of our Ash Wednesday service, I was still focused on the responsibilities of preparing a worship service. Some members of our team under-communicated several duties, so there was a bit of scrambling in the moments before the prelude.
Once the organist started playing the prelude, I looked at the candles and thought about why we come together. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. I considered my own Lenten journey. Would I give something up? Would I add something? What would I do to mark this season?
As the candles flickered and we spoke the liturgy and sang a hymn, I thought about repentance. The choir sang John Donne’s poem, “Hymn to God the Father.” Donne was one of the English metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. His poetry is an outstanding example of this period. In this hymn, he dives deep into the nature of sin. He opens by asking if God will forgive him for the sins that go with his humanity.
The question touches Augustine’s notion that all humanity was “seminally present in the loins of Adam.” According to Augustine, since evil cannot coexist with God, and God does not create evil, it is a byproduct of God’s creativity. Thus, Donne recognizes that, by nature, we are separate from God and need forgiveness. In his poem, once God forgives his innate sinfulness, the speaker says, “For I have more.”
In the second stanza, he acknowledges his complicity in societal sin. We can see our complicity as we (humanity) seek to squelch all who are different. We ignore, put down, kill, and make war. We celebrate the survival-of-the-fittest and discount the weak. Perhaps, worst of all, we profit and enjoy a rich life by others’ pain. Without God’s grace, we try to cover our ears to avoid hearing the cries of those in need. We are unfaithful stewards of our resources and live in a state of sin among a people of sin. Without God’s grace, we would remain in sin. Truly, we are dust. Despite all this, Donne acknowledges that God forgives. Once forgiven, he says, “For I have more.”
Donne’s hymn ends on a note of hope. It is like starting Lent and looking ahead, knowing Easter awaits. There is hope. There is something good in the future. God is in control. No matter what we face today, the risen Christ is ahead of us. It is mystical and impossible to fully explain.
After the homily, the other ministers served the bread and wine of the Lord’s supper and I offered the imposition of ashes. Over and over again, I said, “From dust you have come. To dust you will return,” and drew a little cross with my thumb.
Having the opportunity to watch each person experience Christ is one of the greatest joys of ministry. Some looked serious or earnest or contemplative. Some people smiled. Some offered a hand. Others pushed their hair back. Some said something like, “Thanks be to God,” or “Peace be with you,” or “Amen.” Each person’s experience was unique. I marked their foreheads with ashes and said, “From dust you have come. To dust you will return.”
God is ahead of us. Someday, the Lent that is our lives will be over. Each of us can experience the joy of eternal Easter and union with the risen Christ.