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  • Devin O'Donnell

"From dust thou ‭art‭, and unto dust shalt thou return."

Two days ago was Ash Wednesday, which marks a day of corporate repentance for sins and the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. The day on the Church calendar dates back to 1091, but the practice sprinkling ashes on one's head as symbol of penitence is ancient. Think of the most ancient book, Job. When Job meets with God at the end, he says, "Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes" (42:6). Think of what happens when the prophet Jonah confronts wicked Nineveh: "When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes" (Jonah 3:6). When Jesus warns cities, he says, "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes" (Luke 10:13). There are countless others.


Far from being merely rational minds, Christian understood that we are bodies continued this practice. In the Ash Wednesday service, for instance, Christians have their foreheads marked with black ash in the shape of the cross as the outward sign of our inward contrition. The cross, of course, stands for Christ's immolation in the crucifixion as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world. In addition to the ashes placed upon the forehead, the priest looks you in the eyes and says, "You are from dust, unto dust you shall return." Isn't this a bit morbid? Why is it important that we have such a ceremony?


Those words, which come from God himself and are spoken to Adam in the curse (Gen. 3), remind us that we are all going to die. We are from dust; unto dust we shall return. Aside from the chiastic structure of this statement, it reminds us of our frailty. Sometime humans get comfortable in God's sustaining grace. Sometimes we think we are masters of our fate. Then an earthquake happens. Or a typhoon. Or a plague. The CoV 19 is not the first time communities have been confronted with death. And the dictum momento mori is not morbid. Psalm 90 tells us to number our days, "that we may gain a heart of wisdom." As a creature who is derived, dependent, and contingent, it is wise to be humble. In addition, and most importantly, it is wise remember that we were never made for this life anyway. Where is our life located? Christ says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."


Here is the agenda for today.


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