Remember you will return to dust
Published 9:34 am Friday, February 5, 2016
Across the Pastor’s Desk, By Mark Boorsma
On Wednesday, millions will present themselves for an annual ritual called the imposition of ashes. Rooted in an ancient story of tragic overreaching by humans, these palm-branch ashes tell a bittersweet tale.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Echoing Genesis 3:19, these words speak a sobering and unwelcome truth. We are mortal. We will die. It is always humbling to speak these words, knowing that some to whom I speak will make that mortal transition sooner rather than later. As I say the words, I trace a cross-shaped smudge of ash on a sister’s or brother’s brow. The sign animates the ashes, for now the dire reminder shifts a bit, embracing also the sign of a beloved redeemer whose passion and love conquer death.
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Shifted thus, the words which otherwise might be abrasive and harsh become oddly tender and compassionate. If words and ashes alone toll a bell of death, the cross-sign they become speaks a deeper truth of the compassion and mercy of God.
Other rituals of belonging in the church — baptism, confirmation and communion, for example — mark boundaries. Not all are baptized, not all are confirmed and not all commune. But the ashes are universal. You could walk in off the street and know nothing about the Christian faith, yet if you presented yourself for this ritual you would be included. For this is true of us all. We are dust, and to dust we will return.
The mortality that encompasses us all is traced upon us in the cruciform sign that always heralds the saving presence of Jesus. The wind/breath/Spirit of God blows where it wills. And even dust dances in the wind.
Mark Boorsma is the pastor at Ascension Lutheran Church.