“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I say these words dozens of times on Ash Wednesday, dipping my thumb into the bowl of ashes and smudging crosses on the foreheads of churchgoers, students, commuters who won’t be able to get to a service. Remember you are dust. Remember you are mortal. Remember that you too will die and be returned to the earth.
This is what I hear most often when people talk about Ash Wednesday—that we need to be reminded of our mortality, that our bodies are temporary. And yes, many people do. But what I realize as I hear this idea repeated is that right now in my life, I do not need that reminder. I need Ash Wednesday for a different reason.
You see, I live with chronic illness—several of them, actually. My days are structured around reminders of the ways this body is not eternal. Every time I have to choose between two activities I want to enjoy, because I cannot push my body to do both, I recall that there are limits we don’t get to choose for ourselves. Every day when I take my meds and go through the many other routines my body requires, I remember the fragility of this flesh. Every month when I visit one or more of my cadre of specialists, and I sit in the waiting room and look around and find that I’m the youngest one there by decades, I am reminded that life is not forever.
The act of maintenance itself is a daily application of ashes. This body was made from temporal, earthy things. This body will return to temporal, earthy things. I don’t need an annual reminder. I know damn well that I am dust.
But here’s what I realize: imposing ashes on others and repeating those words so very many times is exactly what I need. What I need is the reminder that it’s not just me, that I am not alone, that everyone else is dust too. I need the reminder that this is just the way of things—that it’s hard, yes, but not unique.
This is true of all of us: our bodies are not eternal, this life is temporary, and all of our plans and preparations cannot save us from returning to dust. Some of us get the strange and sometimes brutal gift of knowing this intimately. Some days I make my peace with it, and some days I rail against it. I get frustrated and cry and wonder, “Why me?” I want to be spiritually evolved enough to not ask this question, but I’m not there yet, or maybe there’s no such thing.
But on Ash Wednesday, as we kneel together and bits of ash escape onto our noses and my fingers seem to leave thin black streaks on everything they touch, I know that we are on this journey together, that I am not less-than because of my body’s needs, that we all live and grieve and sigh and tend to our dust as best we can. This is just life. Our suffering is different, but our journeys are not unrelated.
There is something powerful and holy is this connectedness, the ways that my own experiences shape me and yours, you, and how in sharing these experiences we can know one another better, and maybe even know God better. We are dust, yes, but we are holy dust, animated by the breath of God. And whatever our particular remembrances of our mortality, on Ash Wednesday we share this truth: we are dust, called into being by God, living as fully as we can in these temporary, fragile bodies, until we return to dust again.