“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” are the words spoke as we receive the mark of ashes on Ash Wednesday. They are also the curse that God speaks to Adam as he is being sent out of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3.
We often forget that in the plan of creation God made man and woman to live forever and to be healthy and happy forever. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good,” Gen.1:31a. The world that God had created was not pretty good, good enough to hold for a while, nor good with the understanding that it could be better, but good as in “perfect” and “excellent.” In that excellent, very good world we were to have lived with him in joy and harmony forever. But, in our present circumstances, it is easy to forget this.
When we experience the death of someone we love in our lives or we hear of someone else who is going though a loss we often will console ourselves with the clichés of, “that is the way it is,” or “it is part of the natural process,” or “we all gotta go sometime.” And it is easy to forget that we were not created for death and we were not created to suffer. We were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and to walk with God in peace and love.
With the fall into sin, though, came the curse, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent reminds us of; with sin there is a penalty and with sin there is a cost. We most often do not see a specific penalty for a specific sin (as though we can say I did x and therefore y was the cost that I paid). But the general suffering and death that fills the whole of creation is caused by all of our sins; a collective responsibility. And there is that final cost that we must all face, “to dust you shall return.”
The purpose of Ash Wednesday and Lent, though, is not for us to only see our own failings and penalty, but for us, as a church, to begin our walk to the cross. During Lent we follow to the cross the one who lived without sin, we follow to the cross the one who came restoring the “very good” of creation through healing and raising the dead, and we come to the cross where the “very good” – the perfect one without the curse or defect of sin – paid the ultimate penalty and the fullest cost for our failing and our sin.
Finally, on Easter morning we will wash off those ashes. We hear again that the one who died for our sins has been raised to life. We will hear again that he is the one who we will follow through the blackness of the grave to a day of resurrection when we too will receive life. We too will be raise to a new creation; to new holy bodies and a new holy earth. Raised to live without death, without suffering, to live without the curse of the ashes.