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St Johns Southgate

08 Mar 2018

Dust to dust

One balmy March evening a few years ago, I found myself at a service station filling my car up with fuel.

It was a night like any other and I was on autopilot, just doing one of those mundane things that has to be done. But when I went into the store to pay for my petrol, things got a little weird.

The attendant looked at me funny. He was polite enough, but he kept staring at me in such a wide-eyed curious way that I thought I must have had the world’s biggest booger hanging out of my nose or something.

What should have been an entirely uneventful interaction turned into something quite unnerving. But I paid what was due and then headed home. Once home, I put my bag and keys down and headed to the bathroom to wash up.

As soon as I looked in the mirror, I noticed it. A cross of black ash marked my forehead. How could I have forgotten? I’d just come from our Ash Wednesday service where, along with the congregation, I’d been marked with an ashen cross as the words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” were spoken to me. So much for remembering, I’d forgotten all about it!

But yes, Ash Wednesday, the first day of the 40-day season of Lent, is a time when ashes are imposed as a sign of mortality, and one’s faith in spite of it.

Those who worship on Ash Wednesday are reminded that they will eventually find themselves six-feet-under, in an urn on the mantlepiece, or scattered in a favourite spot. But it’s not morbid. It’s a solemn and beautiful service.

It’s perfectly healthy, spiritually speaking, to look death straight in they eye from time to time. The darkness of the ashes, smudged in the shape of that old instrument of death, can paradoxically open our eyes to the technicolour vividness of life.

The mortal destination of the cross wasn’t the end for Jesus of Nazareth. There was the new beginning of Easter to come. So, in a sense, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in carrying on with life, either on autopilot or with a spring in your step, on Ash Wednesday. Giving thought to your expiration date can help you appreciate the time you have left.

There are times, though, when circumstances are such, that there doesn’t seem to be any light penetrating the darkness. There are times when the new dawn of Easter seems too distant from the cross of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for it to challenge the shadows. But it’s at those times that the cross is at its most powerful.

On Ash Wednesday this year, the families of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida had to face the glaring truth of mortality, as 17 students were shot dead on campus. A mother was photographed that day, weeping outside the school, the ashen cross of Ash Wednesday marking her forehead.

She didn’t need to be reminded of death, she was taken directly to the cross that day. But as a person of faith, she would have known that when we return to the dust, even if it’s far too early and totally unfair, that new life can, and does, spring up.

Jesus’ death, and the dust and ashes of our own, can always been seen in light of Easter. That’s why Ash Wednesday is a beginning and why Good Friday’s good.

Tom Hoffman


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