“Remember, O man that thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Dust and ashes. These are the symbols that mark the beginning of the pilgrimage of love. For that is the deep meaning of Lent. It is all about the renewal of love in our souls and lives, a renewing in us of the divine image in which we are made. That there can be a journey, a pilgrimage, is itself the great good news for our world, weary and in disarray.
T.S. Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday, explores the ambiguities of our modern world, our uncertainties and hesitations, the ambiguities and the confusions of our desires. “Because I do not hope to turn again,” it begins, a phrase which functions as a kind of mantra, and one which captures so much of the despair and uncertainty of our world and day. The despair and uncertainty is in ourselves. And yet, hope against hope constantly breaks through as counter to our despair. There is a yearning, a desire for something more. There is prayer. “Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still,” echoing the psalm prayer, “be still and know that I am God,” (Psalm 46.10). Eliot’s poem ends with a prayer from the liturgy and which is included in the Penitential Service of our Prayer Book (BCP, p. 614). And let my cry come unto thee.” Hope breaks through and seeks its voice, the voice of prayer.
Dust and ashes. They are the profound symbols that recall us to the truth of our humanity. Dust recalls us to creation, specifically to our human creation as the dust into which God has breathed his spirit, the concrete expression of our uniqueness as being made in the image of God, but as well having a connection to everything else in the created order. We are not the authors of our own being. “It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves,” as the Psalmist puts it (Ps. 100). The dust is a strong reminder of our origins, of the truth of our being. “Remember, O man, that thou art dust.” It is something inescapable, something which can only be forgotten at our peril, for “unto dust shalt thou return.” We cannot escape our creatureliness. Denial is the folly of despair. No. The struggle must be to reclaim our being as made in the image of God.