Back to Top

Ash and Oil: Remembering we are Dust, Leaning toward a New Creation

“Dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

I don’t know about you, but every year as I kneel and hear these words spoken to me on Ash Wednesday, I walk back to my seat puzzling over their meaning. The puzzling usually goes something like this: “I’m dust? No I’m not! I have complex emotions. I’m a husband and a son. I have bones, a circulatory system...I’m a divine image bearer! Dust is the stuff that collects underneath my bed when I forget to vacuum. Dust? Really?”

I think there is something buried deep within us that resents our limitations, our creaturehood. Maybe that’s why the first time these words are spoken, they come at the end of God’s heart-wrenching description of the consequences of humanity’s rebellion. After God finally finishes his litany of innocence lost in Genesis 3:14-19, he takes one more opportunity to remind his creatures exactly who they are. We can almost see him grabbing their shoulders and shaking them, wracked with grief but intent on getting his final point across. “Remember, dear creatures--you are dust” (the Hebrew here literally means “ash”). He then expels them from the Garden, with this reminder of their mortality ringing in their ears. It didn’t take long, however, for humanity’s hubris to push God’s warning from its memory. Indeed, our arrogant attempts at reaching beyond our ashen-creature limits have continued all the way from Gen. 4 until today.

Even as humans have imagined newer and more creative ways to ignore our ashenness, the mortality of the rest of creation has come into sharper and sharper focus. Once we start looking for ash in the non-human creation, it’s everywhere. It’s carried on the Santa Anna winds as they stoke some of the worst forest fires the world has ever seen. It blows out of massive smoke stacks, contributing to climate change and settling into our children’s lungs. It floats filmlike on the top of oceans and rivers, poisoning ecosystems and collapsing food chains. Yes, the fragility of creation has never been more clear, in large part thanks to the very human arrogance that exiled us from the Garden in the first place.

Does it have to be this way? Why was God so intent on reminding Adam and Eve about their mortality? Why must we recognize our limitations? What can creation teach us about our own vulnerability; our own identity as creatures of dust? As we follow Christ’s journey to the cross, we might reflect: are there sins towards creation that weighed on his shoulders that dark Good Friday?

These are the questions that we will explore with our Lenten series Ash and Oil: Remembering we are Dust, Leaning toward a New Creation. We invite you to join us by signing up here to receive devotions in your inbox three times a week, or simply by checking back for new posts on the Do Justice blog every other weekday throughout Lent.

Thankfully, ash isn’t the end of the story, for with ash comes oil. Oil not only heals and restores, but it makes the ash stick. During this Lenten season, may we have the courage to be reminded of our dustiness, and to let it stick--even as we await the fully realized reign of the Anointed One.

[Image: Flickr user Andrey. Image adapted.]

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.