This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

From dust to dust

Before we commemorate Jesus’ death and celebrate his resurrection, we confront the fact that we too will die. During the 40 days leading to Easter, we live in the shadow of Ash Wednesday and of these words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” When the dust that is our essence marks our forehead, a look in the mirror reveals the face of one whose days are numbered.

In truth, it is no revelation. We already know death awaits. But we do not like to think of it. During Lent, the contemplation of death directs our mind to places it resists. We object: “That’s too depressing.” But to think of death can motivate rather than depress. It can lead us to ask: How shall I fulfill my purpose in the time I have been given?

The ritual words that remind us that human life began, and will end, in dust come from Gen. 3:19. They are part of the curse God decrees upon Adam and Eve for falling into sin. God casts them out of the garden of innocence and into the fallen world. This is the world we live in too, because it is the world our sins have made.

During Lent, we are called to turn back the shadow of sin’s curse by repenting. Throughout the Bible, ashes symbolize repentance, as in Job 42:6: “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” During these 40 days, we are to live as Psalm 51:3 describes: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”

This verse convicts, because, if we are honest, we have to admit that we do not know our own sins very well. Or, more precisely, we do not want to know them. What we want to know is other people’s sins. We have believed the serpent: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). We enjoy using this godlike ability.

Lent is the time to be honest with ourselves. It is the time to acknowledge that “surely you desire truth in the inner parts” (Psalm 51:6). Perhaps, for us, “the inner parts” means the mind and the conscience. We need to allow God to open our eyes to the reality of our sin. We need to stop running from it and justifying it, and instead confess and repent.

In a time when disagreements are escalating among Christians and conflict is dividing our churches, what are the sins we need to confess? In our zeal to keep other people’s sins always before us, do we fail to see those others as children of God? How might putting our own sins first in our mind improve our ability to get along?

A Latin phrase — memento mori, “remember that you will die” — captures the Lenten theme of meditating on our own mortality. “Remember you are dust.” Death is real. And you are a sinner.

But that is not all to remember. Just as the ash on our forehead turns our thoughts toward sin and death, it also points toward hope: The ash that marks us forms the shape of a cross. “The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man was from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47). That man is Jesus Christ. When we repent, he forgives, and he has defeated death.

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