T en years ago my father died of a sudden and unexpected heart attack. A few months later I was in for a routine medical check-up and my own doctor mentioned that he’d noticed the obituary in the paper. He offered his condolences and asked if my father had been unwell. I explained that while he’d lived for some years with congestive heart disease, between the medications and a healthy lifestyle he’d really been doing very well. He’d actually seen his own doctor just a day or two prior to the heart attack, and had been given a clean bill of health. I explained that he and my mum had even been preparing to go away on vacation the following week, to which my doctor responded, “Do you know the moral of that story is, Jamie? Travel now.” There was no humour or hint of irony in his response. It was just a statement. “Travel now.” And then after a pause, he added, “You just never know, do you?”
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In a few minutes we will move to the time in the liturgy when ashes will be rubbed across our foreheads, and those words spoken over our lives. “Remember you are dust”—remember you are mortal, remember that mortal life is fragile—“and to dust you will return.” Or as my doctor said, rather more prosaically, “You just never know, do you?”
In saying that the moral of the story of my father’s unexpected death was “travel now,” my doctor was touching on one part of the reality of life and death, namely don’t delay your dreams and aspirations for some future date, because that future date might not actually arrive. But consciously or not, he was also pointing to a deeper question, namely were I to die tomorrow would I leave behind a lot of unfinished business? Inevitably for most of us there would be some loose ends and unfulfilled goals, but I’m really talking about things that cut deeper. In my relationships and in my interior life, have I left things seriously untended?
Yet this liturgy not only speaks to us this word that says we are mortal and fragile, it also calls us to do something in the face of that truth. With the strongest of words, it calls us to repent. It tells us to get onto our knees, and to speak truthfully about the shape of our life in all of its brokenness. Yet the act of “worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our brokenness” doesn’t have much currency in a therapeutic cultural milieu that tends to emphasize the need for high self-esteem, a positive self-concept, and a “just do it” kind of attitude. What are we doing here?
In a recent essay for Ash Wednesday published in The Christian Century, the writer Sara Miles reflected on her own preaching around repentance. Identifying herself unapologetically as a “progressive Christian”—an earlier generation would have called her a liberal—she said she found she simply had to preach about sin. “I preached about sin,” she wrote,
… because I believed in mercy. And I believed in mercy because I knew how quickly even my stupidest, most ordinary sins could drag me into a spiral of misery. I’d be mean, or lazy, or selfish, and feel bad about it, and so I’d become meaner, lazier, less interested in thinking about anybody else. That inward-driving force, which takes the mind prisoner and locks the soul in solitary confinement, nourishes even the smallest sin and makes living with it essentially hell.
What Sara Miles is on to here is the fact that “sin” is not about moralism—not about bad things that people do, and for which they need to be punished—but is rather that which keeps us from being what we were created to be. The “spiral of misery” to which she refers is about the kind of self-centeredness—selfishness, but also ultimately self-loathing—that ends up leaving people trapped in patterns quite utterly self- and other-destructive. “And the only way out of it,” she continues, “on Ash Wednesday as on any day, is repentance.”
True repentance, you see, is a powerful and empowering thing which says yes, “you are dust and to dust you shall return,” but also that you are created in the image and likeness of God, and so of infinite value. True repentance has us lament our sin and brokenness before God, but only after first boldly declaring, “Almighty and everlasting God, you despise nothing you have made.” We go to our knees in confession, only to have Christ pull us back up, set us on our feet yet again, and tell us to be the people we were created to be. Or as Sara Miles puts it, this is not about “pouring ashes on your head in a fit of self-loathing, but [rather of] allowing Jesus to spit gently into a handkerchief and scrub off your face.”
Maybe that’s the real reason that the ashen mark on our foreheads is cross-shaped. The great act of self-giving love that is the cross is the one thing we can rely on to get us back on our feet, and so when we bear those ashes we are really asking Jesus to come to us and to again scrub us clean.
When you hear those words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” hear them in all of their truthfulness. We are mortal and so fragile, all carrying some unfinished business to which we need to attend. And when you feel that cross being marked on your forehead, embrace the truth that in spite of it all we’re being named as sons and daughters of the Lord most high.