“For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust,”
In a few moments you are going to have black ash imposed on your forehead in the form of a cross. What a peculiar practice. You know from whence these ashes come don’t you? They are the palm leaves which we wave on the Sunday of the Passion saying, “Hosannah!” Palm leaves which once were luscious and vibrant, full of life, burned to become ash for our heads. A tangible reminder of the finiteness of things, things which come and go, which once were and are no longer.
Ashes imposed on our heads, a tangible reminder of our finiteness, with the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remember. Remember because it is not difficult to forget. And so Lent begins today with a reminder: you are mortal. “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more,” writes the Psalmist (103:15-16).
To recall our mortality may at first seem rather morbid but in fact it names something essential about what it means to be human. “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being,” (Genesis 2:7). The Latin word for earth or ground, the dust from which we are made, is humus from which we get our English word humility. Humility—here’s a word that names the sort of remembering that Christians are called to always and especially during Lent. As such, it’s a word which I want to challenge us to hold over the next number of weeks that we might observe a Holy Lent.
It is hard to follow Jesus without humility and we cannot follow Jesus for very long before learning it.
Humility then is an important virtue and gift for the Christian life and it presupposes three things that I pray would evermore give shape to our life together: that we are God’s to begin with, that we have strayed and do stray, and that God wills us to be His in the end.
Our mortality humbles us because by it we come to learn that we are God’s to begin with. That is to say, we are creatures of the Creator. God has made us and fashioned us. Our very life comes from God and is sustained at each and every moment by God. We have no life in-and-of ourselves. We are contingent beings, totally dependent on He who is Being itself, the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes smudged on our foreheads, a visible reminder of this our creatureliness, of this our mortality.
To be sure, this is not always a welcome message, not in a culture like ours. That we are mortal means that we have limits and bounds beyond which we are unable to venture, try as we might. As the Psalmist says elsewhere, “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me,” (139:5).
In an age where the right to self-determination in all matters pertaining to life and even death is the golden virtue, we hear the Christian story and remember that our lives are not actually our own and therefore are not self-determined but rather determined by the God who made us, who hems us in, who knows our frame.
In the opening of his Confessions St. Augustine wrote: “Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud (1 Pet 5:5). But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
That we are God’s creatures means not only that our life comes from and is sustained by God but also that the goal of life is union with God. Our human life, finite and hemmed in as it is, is a gift which opens up time and space for us to know the love of God in Jesus Christ and to know that this God wills that we love Him in return. To know God and to love God in and through and with Jesus Christ, this is the fullness of life, no matter how many seconds we are granted here on earth.
However, as Augustine notes, sin has a way of obscuring the reality that we are God’s and that the purpose of life is to praise Him. We are God’s, yes indeed, but we have strayed and do stray, our hearts err and are deceived into pursing lesser goods and pleasures. We all know the pull of hubris, to think that we exist unto ourselves, with the right to set the agenda for our own lives and to name the goods which we want to pursue and worship.
Even still, our instinct is to praise God. Our hearts know this and are increasingly restless until they find their rest in God. We wish to praise Him. This is the dignity of human creatures: that we are called to communion with God. That from the very moment you came into being you are invited to converse with God. Indeed, it is for this very reason that you exist at all: because God has created you through love, and through love continues to sustain you in each moment of your existence. And that even though you have sinned and gone astray, God in love pursues you, for he despises nothing which he has made. Every human life is sacred, no matter how big or how small, no matter how strong or how weak. But we forget this, individually and collectively as a society.
Surely, one of the tasks of the church is to remember and announce just this: we are because God is love, and the fullness of life is to love him above all else.
“For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” Remember. Remember whose you are. Remember that you have strayed. Remember that God has called you to return. “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning,” says Joel (2:12). And again, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love,” (2:13).
Here’s where we really get down to brass tacks. Here is where the grace of God becomes truly audacious and messes with our score-keeping. The God who made us does not stand far-off calling us to humble ourselves and return but rather He himself becomes the way by which we do so. And He rescues us not apart from the mess we’ve made but within it, becoming one of us, taking on the dustyness of our frame. Knowing the constraints and weakness of our humanity and from within the human flesh of Jesus Christ bringing all things to completion, uniting us to God forever in himself. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” writes Paul (2 Corinthians 5:21).
That is why your head will be marked not just with ashes—a reminder of your mortality—but with ashes in the form of a cross—a reminder of God’s steadfast and everlasting love which breathes new life into our dusty frame (Psalm 103:17).
Because it is on the cross that we come face to face with the humility of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11). Just here we behold the abundant, self-giving love of God for us in Jesus Christ, who turns us from sin to faithfulness, who turns our mortality into immortality, and calls us to entrust ourselves wholly to himself.
So, this Lent, as you fast and pray and give look not at yourself, look not to others, but look to the cross of Christ. For that is what true humility is, not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less (C.S. Lewis). Thinking of yourself less because you are increasingly drawn towards the beauty of Jesus Christ. When you find yourself tempted and your flesh dragging you in different directions, remember this. Remember that God’s love is your very life and your very life is to love God in and through Jesus Christ. Remember this, now and always, and may your Lent be a holy one. Amen.