"Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return...but thanks be to God for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ."
This is the traditional refrain uttered by the officiant at Ash Wednesday services around the English-speaking world. It's spoken over worshipers who come forward for the imposition of ashes at the end of the service. It's a moving moment.
It's a brutally honest moment, too. At this moment, the masks come off, our denial is disposed, our mortality and common need are revealed. Doesn't matter who you are, how much you make, or how good looking you are. Doesn't matter if you're fit or overweight; well-educated or not, living high on the hog or homeless. Doesn't matter what your skin color, the nationality of your passport, where you've been or who you know. "Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return." Here we are--fallen humanity, by our rebellious nature estranged from God, subject to temptation and weakness, sickness and sin, aging and death. In a word, dust.
But. There's got to be a "but," doesn't there? Otherwise, there's no good news and Christianity, the gospel message, is good news, after all. So...But.
"But" means turning point, rescue, surprise. It means just when you thought it was all over, there turned out to be hope after all. "Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return BUT thanks be to God for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ." God in Christ has delved down deep into our dust, marched right into the midst of our pain, thrown his arms around our mortality, willingly mopped up our sin and shame. All this culminates in the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday. Lent now is the season in which we ponder our mortality, feel our frailty, and lift up our eyes to our common hope.
Human comes from the word "humus", earth, dust. To be human is to be dust. But what glorious dust! Dust that in God's hands is capable of surprising virtue, dust that is raised and transformed by the power of Christ's resurrection, living now into a breathtaking future where death will be a distant memory. Thanks be to God!