Ash Wednesday is the holy day on which you are asked to face the facts about yourself. Letting someone smear ashes on your forehead while telling you that you are dirt is a statement that you have seen and accepted the facts about yourself, and know they’re not in your favor. And, though this isn’t as obvious, it is also a declaration of the good news.
The Church doesn’t give official explanations of what her rites mean, but here’s what I think what is being said through the imposition of ashes. Even if this meaning was unintended as the rite developed, it dramatizes St. Paul’s remark in 1 Corinthians that “since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” The rites points in two directions, one corresponding to “As in Adam all die” and the other corresponding to “In Christ shall all be made alive.”
To see this, we will have to use the original Latin version. It goes, “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” In the traditional English, “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” If I have read the rite correctly, the meaning depends upon the double meaning of man. The word is, unfortunately I think, absent from the Mass today. The Mass now offers two things for the priest to say as he imposes the ashes: either “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (listed first) or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We can keep the word man in mind even if it is not said out loud.
The first movement dramatizes the truth that “in Adam all die.” The words “you are dust and to dust you shall return” are a quote from Genesis, which comes at the end of the list in which God tells Adam (“man” in Hebrew) what his disobedience will cost him, which is also a description of what our disobedience is costing us. So it begins as a statement of our identity and the consequences of our identity.
“Remember, man”: Remember, you descendent of Adam; remember, in the phrase from the Narnia Chronicles, son of Adam, daughter of Eve; remember, original sinner, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
It is important to remember that we are not only children of Adam but willing children of Adam. It is not so much that we fell with Adam into sin, as that we jumped into it with our eyes wide open and a cheery wave to the crowd. We have chosen to return to the dust.
Note that as a sinner you are merely an example of a category, “man.” You are not Bob or Ted or Patricia or Ashley. You are just “man.” Sin destroys personality. It is a turning in upon yourself that makes you less you. As a sinner, you’re much less original and interesting that you would be if you were a saint.
Think of people you have known who relate everything that happens in the world around them to themselves, almost always with either calculation or resentment: Think not just how miserable they are but how bone-wearyingly boring, because their world is so small. To put it another way: Whose world is more interesting, wider, deeper, more filled with interesting facts and stories, whose conversation would be more enlightening, in whose world would you rather live: the average movie star’s or St. Francis’s? To put it even more sharply: your’s or St. Francis’s?
In your sins, you are not even the unique individual you think yourself. You are not special. You are average, mediocre, run of the mill. But nevertheless, the rite recognizes that you are particularly interested in the fate of one boring sinner, yourself. Having established your status, the rite goes on to pronounce your doom in the singular form, literally to your face: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” You: You individually, you Bob, Ted, Patricia, and Ashley, are dust and will return to dust.
All this is conveyed in the action of the rite itself. You go forward and line up, either at the chancel steps or along the altar rail, and you receive the ashes with the same words everyone else hears. Remember what you are hearing when the priest says, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” You are hearing what is in essence your death sentence — your eternal death sentence.
And it is delivered without the drama and pastoral sensitivity we expect. It is as if a doctor walked into his waiting room full of people with cancer, simply pointed to each one and said in a monotone, “You’re going to die,” and turned around and walked back into his office and closed the door.
So we hear on Ash Wednesday that in Adam all died, which means that we are dead in our sins. It is a fact of some importance, but one we spend most of our lives ignoring.
That is the obvious meaning of the rite. Because you are a sinner, you are going to die and disappear, your decayed body scattered like the gold dust at the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a symbol of the vanity and futility of human life.
In Christian worship, however, you cannot avoid the Christian hope. Sin does not have the final word, even here, when your doom is being pronounced. As St. Paul says, “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Where in this statement that we are dust and will return to dust is any kind of hope? In the double meaning of man. When we hear the words on Ash Wednesday we also have fixed in our minds the words of the Nicene Creed: “for us men and our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” To be a descendent of Adam is also, and more importantly, to be a man or woman for whom the Son of God became man, died, and rose again.
So the rite is saying: Remember who you are, by your own choice, but remember also who you are by God’s choice. Remember, O Son of Adam, that you are not only a Son of Adam but that you are also a child of the Father through adoption. You are dust, yes, but you are redeemed dust, you are dust that God will reassemble. You may look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. After all, the God who created us from the dust of the earth can just as easily recreate us from the dust into which we have decayed.
It is this second part of the message that changes the imposition of ashes from a drama of despair to a drama of repentance. Without the Christian hope, the rite would be a poetic statement of the ultimate futility of human desire and effort, a biblical version of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” In that poem, you will remember, a traveler is describing a broken statue he saw in the desert,
. . . And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
That is the best we can hope for, a sort of grand romantic and mournful realism, without the Lord who for us men was made man.
The Ash Wednesday hope is conveyed in the action of the rite itself. You receive the ashes at the same place and in the same posture you receive Communion, and in fact will receive Communion a few minutes later, with its assurance of God’s favor. And psychologically, at least, it is a “safe place,” indeed a sort of home: precisely the sort of place you would want to hear bad news. And the ashes mark a cross upon your forehead, a sign not only of the cost of your sins but also of your redemption from your sins.
So the imposition of ashes has a double meaning, one despairing, because it describes the reality of what we have made ourselves; the other hopeful, because it describes the new reality God has made for us. For the Christian, hope trumps despair. “In Adam all die” and “In Christ shall all be made alive” are both true, but Christ has conquered death.
This is not a reason to feel good about yourself on Ash Wednesday. It is a fast day given us to remember what we have done and to try to learn how much of the old Adam remains in us. The more you see what Jesus did for you, the more you will want to track down your sins to the places they have hidden, drag them into the light, and with God’s help drive them away.
Mills has also written an ecumenical explanation of the rite, which can be found here. “Remember, That Thou Art Dust” is a revised version of “The Dust of Adam,” which appeared in the March 2004 issue of Touchstone.