Preached at Cathedral of St. Philip’s “family service” on Ash Wednesday
Today we are remembering that we are dust, and in a little bit we’ll put a dusty reminder on each person’s forehead. What does it mean to remember that we are dust?
I remember the first time I put ashes on neighbors’ heads and said the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I was a student in New York, and it was an absolutely frigid day. I spent part of the day inside a sanctuary putting ashes on peoples’ heads, and I spent part of the day outside doing the same from the sidewalk. I wore black gloves with the thumb cut off, and after an hour outside my thumb was completely numb with cold.
I put ashes on all kinds of people. Tall people, short people, busy people, calm people, people speaking different languages, old people and young people. But the face I remember the most was that of a little baby, just a month or two old, sleeping in the arms of his mother. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Though I had no children of my own at the time, I was immediately struck by the truth that as much as we belong to each other, we belong especially to God. That none of us can really hang onto another forever, for everyone is dust. It was and is a reminder that while we are free to make decisions, some better than others, there’s very little we can control. We are not in control.
So kids I want you to turn to each other, find a partner, look them in the eye, and say “Remember that you are dust.” And adults, when you look into the faces of those around you tonight and all through Lent, I want you to think to yourself, “Remember that you are dust.” Parents, when you tuck your children in at night, you can make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, reminding them they are blessed. And as you do so, I want you to remember that they too are dust. Because it’s a reminder that we belong first to God. That God creates life from dust, and that God is with us when we return to dust.
As important as it is to remember that we ourselves are dust, I think it can be pretty life changing to remember that the person sitting next to you, the stranger driving past you, the parent or sibling living hundreds of miles away, the child you tuck in at night—they are dust too.
And as dusty people we remember that even before we belong to each other, we first belong to God. That we belong to God in our birth, in our death, and in every moment in between. We belong to God and God is always with us.