Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, said, “There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality.”
Perhaps the greatest unreality we face is the denial of our mortality. Often, we act to prolong life at all costs, to seek security in things that prop up this life, and to eschew reminders of our death.
Ash Wednesday is one of the church’s great reminders of reality. At our church, we gather for Ash Wednesday worship, and participants receive on their foreheads ashes in the form of a cross. They hear the words, “From dust you have come, and to dust you will return.” There is no unreality here.
On Ash Wednesday, we begin Lent with a reminder of the reality of our mortality. In remembering that we will die, we also are called to remember God who is the source of our life.
There are two important lessons taught in bearing the ashes on our foreheads.
First, you are to remember that you are dust. You will die. You are frail, you have limits, you are sinful, and there are things that you cannot fix. Remembering that you are frail calls you to seek the mercy of God. You are dust!
Second, you are to remember that you are dust – dust that is beloved by God, enlivened by God, forgiven and redeemed by God. So, live into the places and ways that you sense God calling you. The ashes we receive on our foreheads are not simply a smudge; they are in the shape of the cross, which reminds us of God’s love and creative power. Remember, you are dust that is beloved by God!
This lesson of our dustiness was lived well by Sir Robert Grant, a British man born in India in 1779 as the son of the director of the East India Company. After graduating from Oxford, Grant was admitted to the bar at age 28 and elected to Parliament at 29. His life was shaped by his Christian faith, and despite his impressive pedigree and credentials, Grant always remembered the plight of those less fortunate. In Parliament, he worked to protect Jews in England. He returned to India to work with the East India Company and eventually became governor. As governor, he implemented social reforms to ease the effects of crushing poverty for many people. Following his death, Grant’s name was given to one of the oldest medical colleges in India.
Throughout his life, Grant wrote poetry and hymns. His best known hymn still is sung in many churches, and it is included in our church’s hymnal. It is “O Worship the King,” which begins,
O Worship the King all glorious above
and gratefully sing His power and His love;
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.
Grant’s words in the hymn also speak to our condition as dusty creatures, which we remember on Ash Wednesday:
Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
in Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail:
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.
Grant recognized and lived the promise of Ash Wednesday. We are dust – and to dust we will return. But, we are dust that is beloved of God – invited to receive God’s love and called to share that love with others.