4th Week of Lent: The Ashes Are Long Gone, But Their Meaning Endures

The message of Ash Wednesday echoes through the rest of Lent: “Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return”

Charles-Joseph Natoire, “The Rebuke of Adam and Eve,” 1740
Charles-Joseph Natoire, “The Rebuke of Adam and Eve,” 1740 (photo: Public Domain)

Four weeks after Ash Wednesday, we might be inclined to forget about ashes until next year, perhaps with the hope that we will be able to receive them in 2022 in a more normal fashion. But ashes should not disappear just because we washed our foreheads (or hair) on Feb. 17. Ashes have an enduring meaning in Lent.

We’ll start to close Lent in preparation for next year’s Lent: the palms we wave on Palm Sunday two weeks from now will be the ashes we bear on March 2, 2022. The prayer for blessing those palms will recall the process of penance we undertook “for 40 days.”

While the smudges may be gone, the sign remains: we present ourselves for the imposition of ashes not because it’s an ecclesiastical freebie or custom, but because they are an external expression of an internal disposition, especially during Lent. The ashes don’t forgive sins, but they express the bearer’s recommitment to the struggle against sin and for conversion. In that sense, they’re like the baptism of John the Baptist, which was not baptism in the way we understand that sacrament (the forgiveness and healing from original and actual sin) but a sign of committing to a change of heart ahead of God’s Kingdom that was coming (and for which we pray daily to come).

We should pay attention to the close nexus between Ash Wednesday and other Lenten readings. On Ash Wednesday, the traditional formula for imposing ashes is “Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” It is drawn from Genesis 3:19, where God declares it as a consequence of sin: man, raised by God from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7) to be God’s image through the gift of a living soul, chose instead to wallow in the dirt, in the same dust that is the condemned serpent’s food (Genesis 3:14). 

It’s the dust that Moses strikes to raise up gnats (Exodus 8:16), the third plague to befall Egypt. It’s the soot that Moses casts into the air, which became “fine dust,” leading to Egypt’s sixth plague: boils (Exodus 9:9).  Without God’s power, dust doesn’t produce much good. 

God reminded David when he grew proud that it was God who “exalted you from the dust and made you ruler of my people, Israel” (1 Kings 16:2). It is God who reminds us, through the Church’s voice during Lent, of our origins and our destiny because of sin (see Psalm 90:3).

When we read Mark’s Gospel during Lent, we encountered the more contemporary formula for imposing ashes: “Repent and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:14). Those were among the first words Jesus speaks when, after emerging victorious from being tempted in the desert, he launched his three-year long public ministry. 

The old Adam and the new Adam. The old Adam blew it, trading his blessing for a bowl of apple pottage. What he traded away by disobedience, the new Adam in the desert won back by obedience (Romans 5:19), i.e., overcoming temptation. It is man’s lot to be tempted, as he was in the beginning; it is not his lot but his choice to succumb. 

God made man in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:27), stamping divinity upon a hybrid creature with one foot on the earth. Man chose to disfigure that divine image, which is why St. Paul speaks about our bearing the image of the χοϊκοῦ man (1 Corinthians 15:49). Many Bibles translate the term as “earthly” man, but some as “earthy” (in the sense “of the earth”) and some even go so far as to render it, “the man of dust.” Paul then contrasts that old Adam with the new, the “heavenly” man.

When “the man of dust” degraded his dignity in God’s image and likeness, he accepted the devil’s lie, “you will be like gods” (Genesis 3:4). The problem with lies is that they can’t deliver, no matter how hard we believe them. Man would never be like a god, because God is Being, the “I Am who Am” (Exodus 3:14), and man is not. That is why, as I often insist, death is not an arbitrary “punishment” imposed on the first Adam but the inevitable outcome of his choice: regardless of what he thinks, a human being is not the source of his being. Cutting himself off from his being inevitably means he will die, because he is not self-sustaining. God sustains him — but man chose to sever that connection.

So, in sin, we remain the “man of dust.” Dust is not even really good dirt. It’s ephemeral. Consider when you go into an old, shuttered room that hasn’t been cleaned in a while, open the shades, and let in the light on a bright, sunny afternoon. You can see dust drifting in the air. That is the stuff of man, absent God’s creative, sustaining, and redeeming life.

In having dust affixed to our heads at the beginning of Lent, we commit ourselves to remember what we are and to repent to follow the Gospel, which is simply the Good News of Someone, i.e., Jesus Christ. 

At the same time, ashes have a long provenance as signs of remembering who we are and of repenting. Donning of sackcloth and ashes is the traditional external sign of penance in the Old Testament: see Job 42:6; Lamentations 2:10; Ezekiel 27:30; Isaiah 58:5; Jeremiah 6:26, 25:34; Daniel 9:3; Esther 4:3. And it is God who raises us from the ashes of repentance to make a new man (see Isaiah 61:3), just as once He made an old man from the dust of the earth, a man to exalt as a “child of God,” (1 John 3:2), a dignity even greater than David’s.

So, while Ash Wednesday’s ashes have long been scrubbed away, their meaning perdures. It’s the meaning of humiliation caused by sin and corrected by self-humility, whose goal is — like Lent’s — for a new and better man to come out on the other side.