“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Now you may be thinking right now, “But Suzannah you are a person of faith. You should know that death is not final and that there is something more than this life.” And you are right, I do believe this. I do believe that there is something more to existence than just the time we know on earth. But the reality is that none of us here today knows what lies beyond our earthly existence. It is the great unknown, and the unknown is always frightening. The unknown is scary. When someone we love dies they are no longer physically with us. We cannot talk with them, hug them, hold them, smell them, hear them or see them. So from our limited human perspective death is final. It is the end. It is to be feared.
So why do we come together once a year to remind ourselves of our mortality? Why do we come forward, kneel at this altar rail, receive the ashes on our foreheads and say “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return?” Are we masochists who are trying to punish ourselves? I don’t think so. I think we do this because there is something that we miss when we cling to life out of a place of fear. When we numb ourselves and live our lives in terror and fear of death we actually miss out on most of our lives. When we live from a place of fear we cling, we shut out, we turn off, we fail to notice the life that is all around us. It is one of the paradoxes of being human. To be truly alive we have to come to a place where we truly accept that we will die.
I visited this woman several times a week over the 6 months that it took her to die. It turns out that she wanted a visit from a priest, not because she was afraid of death and wanted to talk about that, but because her whole family was afraid of death and was avoiding her and she wanted to share her life with someone. She thought that maybe a priest could handle her dying and would be willing to be present with her as she continued to live her life until she died. The very first thing she said to me when I walked into her room with my face solemn and composed was, “If you are going to be my priest you will need to smile more. I am not dead yet.” She was never in denial of her death, but she believed that as long as she had breath in her body, her task was to live her life and to enjoy it to the hilt. And enjoy it she did. Her room was always full of joy and laughter and happiness. Eventually we were able to help her family join in on her living. And when she finally did die, it was a peaceful and beautiful death with her whole family at her side.
We shall return to dust that is true! But we are also called to rejoice that we were created from the dust in the first place! What if these ashes we receive are not so much about self-denial and bodily mortification? What if these ashes are about transformation? A change in how we see the world. A reminder that we were created. We are alive. God made us to be alive and to live.
Yes, you shall return to dust, but rejoice that you were created from the dust at all!