On Ash Wednesday, many of us will have ashes placed on our foreheads with the words, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” We are reminded that our lives are finite, that we will someday die, just as every human life ends. As we mark the beginning of Lent, a season of self-reflection and preparation, it makes sense to begin with a reminder that this life will end. There is resurrection from the dead, there is eternal life, but instead of rushing to the joy of Easter, we must understand why our old lives and old ways must die.
Ash Wednesday can seem depressing or macabre, and many, even pastors, can struggle with this service, and the whole season of Lent. Lent is rather funereal. But there is something beautiful in those very blunt words. We come from dust – not just in the Creation story where Adam and Eve are created from the very dust of the Earth, but in reality. Our atoms are made up of atoms that have been in the ground, in the water, in living beings over time, even in the dust of stars.
God’s creation is truly cosmic, universal. We do not exist separately from the rest of creation, but are intermingled with all of creation, and all of humanity. We are part of each other. Likewise, death is inevitable and universal for humans and all of creation. Nothing remains static. Even stars that bring light and life to planets die. And when we die and turn to dust, that dust will become part of another new life.
We are dust, just like everyone else. When we see the ashes on the foreheads of strangers in the street, and they see ours, we know how they got there, we know what they mean. We are not alone.
There is hope in that. And there is hope in the resurrection. We may all die, but death does not have the final word. This is what we proclaim in our words on Ash Wednesday – it is the beginning of a season, not the end – and it is what we proclaim on Easter, when we celebrate the certainty of that promise. It is also what we proclaim every time we have a funeral.
When we die, we do not need a funeral. We have already gone on to what is next. We may think it is too much to ask for people to go through. But we need to remember, and to hear the good news of resurrection. It can be uncomfortable. Not all lives are good lives. Not all deaths are good deaths. Like our self-examinations in Lent, funerals can bring up some hard truths. But we cannot live a new life if we are holding on to the old life.
Churches are like that, too. The Body of Christ lives on, but individual communities have finite life-spans. Churches are brought forth from the dust, and to dust they will return. And it is ok. But let us have the funeral. Let us remember all that God did in our lives, and the hard times, too. Let us let go of the old life, so new life can grow.
As at any funeral, we should gather together friends and family. We should tell stories and remember. We should figure out what to do with what has been left over from our lives – where a building or money or art or collective knowledge will do the most good. We should grieve the death of a community. We should proclaim resurrection.
Our churches may not last. Which of the churches the apostle Paul wrote to is still standing? Which ones have you visited? Some were in towns that no longer exist anymore, much less the church community. But their stories, their struggles and their joys live on. We learn from them in order to keep living the new life we have been given, and not fall into the habits of the old life.
So have the funeral. Remember and grieve. Then let it all go, and live into new life. For you are dust, and to dust you will return. And it is beautiful.