Being from a low-church background, it slipped my mind that today was Ash Wednesday until my friends headed toward Memorial church instead of toward the dining hall after class. The liturgy was simultaneously beautiful, challenging, and soothing. Yet it lacked one essential element.
As the Reverend spread the ashes over my forehead, she said, “From ashes you came, to ashes you shall return.” As she spoke this, I was struck by how easily we’ve adopted the language from an Old Testament framework. This quote, from Genesis 3:19, implies no afterlife; not even the more developed idea of Sheol that is expressed in the Psalms. Instead, it suggests the lowliness of man, which may well be a fitting reminder during a time of renewed focus on repentance and sacrifice.
This quote resonated with my atheist past: man, evolved from bacteria out of dust, will eventually die, decaying back into dust. There is no hope in such a framework. As we celebrate Ash Wednesday, it is essential to recall that turning back into ashes is not the end of the story. Christ died so that death might be no more. When we die, we celebrate, because we look forward to the resurrection that ultimately awaits us. As we turn from sin, we cannot forget this hope that is promised. We are made from dust, we shall become dust, and from the dust we shall rise anew.