Remembering that we are dust during Lent


On Ash Wednesday, many Catholics received ashes on their foreheads while the minister proclaimed, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” taken from the Book of Genesis. Saturated with meaning, the scriptural text orients believers toward the existential and unavoidable threat of death. Although it sounds macabre, one cannot avoid the truth that every human being will one day die. For the non-believer, the inevitability of death can lead to an unrelenting nihilism, rendering moral questions inapplicable to the sad state of affairs within the human condition. But for the Christian, death remains a passage, a gateway, as it were, to the fulfillment of the promise of Resurrection won by the victory of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary.
This is why the saints could both laugh at and rejoice in death, for it quickened their meeting with the Sovereign Lord. The Roman martyr Saint Lawrence, who was burned on a grill, quipped to his persecutors: “I’m all done on this side, you can turn me over.” St. Therese of Lisieux once wrote, “Death is no phantom, no horrible specter, as presented in pictures. In the catechism it is stated that death is the separation of soul and body, that is all! Well, I am not afraid of a separation which will unite me to the good God forever.” Heaven awaits those who trust in – and seek – the mercy of God.
Keeping death before one’s eyes remains a laudable Lenten exercise along with the traditional practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. To recall one’s own finitude – that one is “dust” – neither weakens nor eradicates man’s innate dignity as created in the image and likeness of God. Radical contingency transmits a helpful tool for spiritual growth. A practical awareness of one’s limits as a creature divests man of his prideful self-sufficiency, and reminds him that without God, he is nothing. Perhaps this is why St. Bernard described the secret to holiness as “three necessary things: humility, humility, and humility.” The linguistic root for our English word “humility” bears the same philological origin as our word “hummus,” meaning close to the earth – or “dust,” so to speak. Just as Adam needed the divine hand of the Creator to create a body and soul composite from that dust, so does every person rely on the good and gracious God for permanence in being.
The Church doesn’t recommend focusing on death for death’s sake — but for the life that awaits the children of God. Christians realize such a joyful promise came at a price, bought for us by the blood of the Savior. Only sin can rupture God’s friendship with man, secured by Christian baptism. Thankfully, the Sacrament of Penance offers an escape from the drudgery of sin, and restoration of grace in the soul of the baptized. Knowing that one is dust easily propels a person toward confession, because there, God’s grace alone reestablishes man in a rightful relationship with his Creator. This Lent, we do well to remember the dust of our very selves, not to fear death, but to prepare for it—and indeed, like the saints, to one day embrace it as our path to union with the God who saves and redeems.