jQuery Slider

You are here



by Ian Hunter
National Post
February 17, 2010

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and one of the most solemn Christian observances. Around the world Christians will make their way to a church where a minister or priest will smudge their forehead with ashes and say: "Remember, Man, that you are dust, and unto dust you will return."

This might be considered a creepy or morbid ceremony; indeed, I recall one Anglican priest going on at length from the pulpit about how much he disliked Ash Wednesday, particularly when it came to smudging his wife and children. At that time, and since, I considered that this only reflected his impoverished understanding of what Ash Wednesday signifies, but let that pass.

In fact, reminders that we are dust, that life is fleeting and death inevitable, are as common to poets as to priests; the sentiment is not especially a religious one. So the Persian astronomer-poet, Omar Khayyam - (or, perhaps, his English "translator" Edward Fitzgerald) - wrote:

"Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into dust descend;
Dust into dust, and under dust, to lie,
Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and - sans End."

It is true, though, that the briefness of life and the inevitability of death are Biblical themes, beginning in the Book of Genesis and continuing to the Book of Revelation. Scripture always depicts man, alone among created things, as one who can look upon himself, recognize his own mortality, understand that his time is fleeting and uncertain, and amend himself accordingly. At the beginning of the forty days of the penitential season of Lent, Christians confront the reality of the human predicament; they affirm that life is transient, that we are dust and to dust shall one day return.

But in addition to this truth, Ash Wednesday also contains hope. That hope is that God knows exactly what we are; "He remembereth that we are dust", the Psalmist said. In other words, yes, at Lent we are reminded that we are dust, but God knew our state already, blesses us, and loves us still. To put the point another way, God knows the flaws that predispose us to temptation and to sin, but loves us despite them.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the divine clothed in human flesh; this means that God not only understands our nature but, through the mystery of the Incarnation, shared it. Jesus, too, was dust, and in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb in the garden, was laid to rest as dust. But then came the miracle of the Resurrection and the triumph of life over death. So the culmination of the 40 days of Lent that begin on Ash Wednesday is Easter morning.

This is why the dust that will be smudged on foreheads today is not the dust of earth but a special dust, made from burning the palms that were carried into the Church on Palm Sunday last year. These palms recall a day of hope, a day when Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem and the people waved palm branches and shouted "Hosannah". These same palm branches, a year later, are burned and these "embers of glory" (C. S. Lewis's term) is what will be used to mark the forehead with the sign of the cross.

On Ash Wednesday Christians confront their mortality and that is chastening. On the same day we are marked with the promise of immortality. The dust in which Jesus was laid could not hold Him; we accept His promise that it will not hold us either.

It is interesting that Ash Wednesday falls at the end of the dog days of winter, while the skies are bleak and the ground is snow-covered and frozen. But we look around and know that green shoots are about to break through frozen ground. On the trees, buds; the cycle of life starting up again. Janus-like, on Ash Wednesday we are brought face to face with two realities - mortality and resurrection.

For non-Christians, Ash Wednesday must seem nothing more than benighted superstition. For Christians it is a day when their ears echo with the promise of Christ that death does not have the last word.

----Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Eastern University. iahunter@sympatico.ca

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top