The Gifts of Ashes and Dust, and a Life Well-Lived

This past Tuesday at Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center we embarked on our annual Day Lenten Journey—a mini-retreat launching us into a season of reflection, humility, and generosity. It was a gorgeous and grievous day. I greeted participants gathered on Zoom from the front of our chapel with expansive views of our snowy grounds behind me. On the lectern, beside my notes on the meaning of ashes and dust, my topic for the day, lay my phone. I was waiting for a call that might come at any moment—my chance to say goodbye to a beloved aunt who soon would die.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

These are the words with which we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday. Ashes and dust are meaningful symbols not only for this liturgical season but also for life as a whole. Dust and ashes remind us of our mortality and our need to mourn; they encourage us to protest violence and resist despair; and they inspire us to change our ways and to wait for the emergence of new life.

Accepting our Mortality

God is creator, and human beings are creatures. We are finite. We have a beginning and an ending. We come from the dust of the earth, and the dust of the cosmos, and to it we return. The death of loved ones, the disintegration of dreams, and the cascade of losses in a pandemic: all this reminds us of our mortality. I often have found comfort in the biblical phrase, “God knows that we are dust.” On the one hand, this phrase reminds us of our own limitations, which may keep us from over-reaching, over-functioning, and taking on more responsibility than belongs to us. On the other hand, it promises us that we are remembered by God in life and in death. We are neither forgotten nor abandoned. Given this, how might we accept (or move closer to accepting) our finitude this Lenten season? How do we feel about our mortality? How might we express these feelings to God in prayer?

Mourning our Losses

Human beings are often celebrating or mourning, or both. Triumph and tragedy, joy and sorrow, pain and perplexity: this is the stuff of life from birth to burial. Too many of us, however, are socialized to avoid death and to sidestep mourning. Lenten ashes invite us to acknowledge our grief and loss. In burial services, loved ones ritualize their mourning, in part, by tossing dirt on caskets while the officiant proclaims, “We commit this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

As I tossed handfuls of dirt on the chapel carpet during our Day Lenten Journey, I remembered my aunt and my relatives lovingly gathered around her at that very moment. We all acknowledged the 500,000 deaths from COVID and then we paused to reflect on these questions: Who and what have we lost in this past year? Even though the pandemic has altered our rituals and our basic ways of connecting, how can we still be present with one another in our grief?

Confessing Wrong, Changing Ways

The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) includes story after story of persons clothing themselves in sackcloth and ashes whenever they become aware of the ways that they “miss the mark” in relation to God and each other. They adorn themselves with humility. They acknowledge their wrong. They express their remorse. They seek to make amends. Not out of shameful wallowing or an attempt to earn divine favor, which is always a gift, but rather out of gratitude and a desire to contribute to truth, beauty, and goodness in the world. In this season of Lent, we are invited to articulate our guilt and regret. We might do so in words or images, in prose or poetry or song. To whom might we express our remorse? What does “making amends” look like concretely for us?

Protesting Violence and Resisting Despair

In Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) narratives, people also adorn themselves with ashes in protest against treachery, as a plea for deliverance, and as resistance against apathy and despair. The story of Esther provides a vivid example. When an edict called for the murder of all Jewish people, Mordecai clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes. He protested and wailed at the king’s gate. Others joined him, and their voices were heard. Systemic injustice, hate crimes, and other acts of violence are all too pervasive in our world. Consider the injustices or violence some of us have endured and many of us have witnessed this past year. How can we protest and thereby help to preserve life? Whose lament can we join? How can we resist despair?

Waiting for New Life

Dirt (or, dust) is a place of death and life. It is the site of burial and resurrection. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). During our Lenten retreat, I opened a packet of flower seeds. They were too tiny for participants to see, no matter how close I got to the camera. Seemingly insignificant and barely visible, they contain the potential for life. If I bury them deep in the soil, letting them go from my sight, they may burst forth with tender shoots and bloom into beautiful flowers that bring delight to others. Creaturely existence entails letting go and waiting for new life to emerge.

I kept my phone on and by my side throughout the entire Day Lenten retreat. Before I left the retreat center, my cousin and aunt called from the hospital. Our six-minute conversation was an exquisite gift. My aunt—a high school math teacher with a penchant for assisting kids who struggled; a religious education director who humbly modeled genuine faith; a community volunteer who cared for those in need; and a beloved wife, mother, grandmother, sister, and friend—had taught us how to live and then how to die. With strength and dignity; with generosity and faith; with fierce fighting and gracious letting go, and the wisdom to know when each response was needed.

Accepting our mortality, mourning our losses, confessing our wrong, and protesting violence: all of this is possible when we are upheld by God’s promises and when others, like my aunt, exemplify it for us. As we continue this Lenten journey, we are invited to let go and to wait for new life. May we embrace and support one another in doing so.  

*Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).


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