Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2023
The Rev’d Cameron Partridge
Good evening, St. Aidan’s. As I said to one of my children first thing this morning as I whisked open the curtains: it’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining, the wind is blowing, and it’s Lent! On a less annoyingly cheerful note, I was surprised over the weekend when one of my (duly anonymized) children spontaneously brought up the key phrase of this day at the breakfast table. What does it mean for us to say, or to hear, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”? Why do we take in this phrase on this day? How does it shape our entry into this penitential season of the Church Year? What we found ourselves reflecting on together – I am unable now to recall which of us said what – was the relationship of our birth to our death, our creation to our re-creation. In our recognition of this relationship, Lent issues us a call.
Remember that you are dust. This phrase prompted the breakfast table conversation to evoke the second of the two creation accounts in Genesis. This is the story that begins not with the “formless void” and the wind/spirit of God sweeping over the face of the deep before speaking light into being (Genesis 1:1-2:3). But rather, this is the rendition that begins with the Lord God forming a human being “out of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:4-25). Perhaps mixing that dust with the stream flow that, in this account, “would rise from the earth and water the whole face of the ground,” God formed the person and blew living breath into its nostrils, inviting it to join in God’s gardening. That invitation continued after God drew forth a second person from the first, creating human companionship. Then, as these companions tested their limits and tragically lost sight of themselves, succumbing to the temptation to put themselves in the place of God, they were reminded of their creatureliness in the same language we hear today: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Psalm 103 uses this same language as well, addressing God’s ultimate parental care for us, even as we are called to humility: “As parents care for a child, so do you care for those who fear you. For you yourself know whereof we are made; you remember that we are but dust” (Ps. 103). Lent is a season of humility, a term derived from the Latin for earth, ground, soil. Remember your earthly origins. To them you will return.
Perhaps this message sounds overwhelming or depressing – remember your mortality. Or more pointedly, remember that one day you will die. I agree, it is stark. And for those of us who have lost loved ones, as we have recently in this community, or are navigating or anticipating such loss, this reminder may feel especially difficult. Yet I would invite us to hear this annual Ash Wednesday refrain not as harsh rejoinder but as grounding perspective. Understood as an ultimate perspective, we might further hear it as a call. What might it look like in your life to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return?
I imagine we can answer that question in a number of different ways. This week I was especially struck by the news of former President Jimmy Carter’s recent decision to enter hospice care. I was struck by two aspects of the news. First, that he has made this important decision to end interventional medical treatment and to receive comfort care at home. What I read sounded familiar, as I imagine it did to many of you who have walked with loved ones who have made similar decisions. The second aspect of the news that struck me was the fact that it was news. Not that it shouldn’t have been, particularly since this is a former president of the United States. Yet given how common hospice care is in the experience of so many of us, why would it be news? Here the significance of the hospice decision relates to how presidents of the United States are often portrayed in relation to prowess, achievement, and power – ideas not incidentally bound up with masculinity (and truly, there’s a whole other conversation to be had about U.S. presidents and masculinity). President Carter is refreshingly bucking that trend, as he long has. As a Washington Post article commented,
in the modern era, it’s unusual for someone who has soared to great heights to allow
himself to be seen once again negotiating life at ground level in all its uncertainties and
complexity…Now, as the country, and perhaps even the world, considers [Carter’s] life,
he is also allowing us an opportunity to consider what it means to die. Not suddenly or
violently, but after a long and prosperous life. After a good life. Carter has grasped a
whisper of control over his own death by ceding control: to God, to fate, to the
inevitable. For anyone who has conquered seemingly impossible hurdles, it must take
tremendous strength to make the decision that the time has come to stop struggling
and simply to be.
To stop struggling and simply to be. President Carter is sharing an authentic humility grounded in deep knowledge of who he is as a human being, a child of God, made from dust and to dust finally to return. In another Post article, quoting his reflection on his 2015 cancer diagnosis, Carter said he had discovered he is “completely at ease with death.” He is ready to release himself into the loving arms of the God who made and redeemed him, with gratitude for a life inspiringly lived.
And this release gets to the heart of what I think the Ash Wednesday refrain calls us to consider, to ask: from what do we need to release ourselves this season? Into what do we need to let ourselves flow? Perhaps this might be a way to conceive of our Lenten discipline, whatever that might look like for you this year. Whether we take something on or give something up, a principle to guide that practice can be one of release. What is getting in the way of our grounding in God, our call to “be reconciled with God” as the Apostle Paul says in our second reading (2 Cor. 5:20)? What is keeping us from living fully into our ultimate location as human beings in the wondrous scheme of God’s creation? What might we do this Lent to release ourselves into that dust, to embrace that holy grounding? May we take these questions with us as we move from the ashy earthiness of this day to the Lenten dust writ large, the seasonal location that this coming Sunday will invite us into in earnest: the desert.