Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Much More than Dust in the Wind” (Psalm 103:13-14)
Ash Wednesday: February 26, 2020
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down!”—you learned this nursery rhyme as a child. Some claim it goes back to the plagues of the middle of the last millennium, but either way, even as a child you learned that eventually “ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” Every year on Ash Wednesday we are reminded that we are mortal, reminded during the imposition of ashes of what God said after the Fall in the Garden of Eden, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (The Book of Common Prayer 265; Genesis 3:19). Along these lines, several weeks ago a friend sent me the following, “You come from dust. You will return to dust. That’s why I don’t dust—it could be someone I knew.”
No matter how smart, or beautiful, or witty, or industrious, or strong, or gifted, or invincible you may be, you are still mortal. Every year on Ash Wednesday ashes are imposed on foreheads of all kinds of people from all walks of life in all stages of life—from elementary school kids trying not to crack up during the service, to idealistic young adults with “their whole lives in front of them”, to middle aged who are doing their best to help their aging parents, to the elderly wondering how it is possible for all those decades of their life to already be in the past.
No matter who you are, you have an appointment with death. It may be on a rainy spring Monday morning, or a hot summer Wednesday night. It may be on a crisp fall Friday evening, or early on a bitter cold winter Saturday morning. There is no way you can escape your appointment with death. You may be able to postpone it, hopefully for many years, but that day will still arrive eventually. Scripture tells us, “It is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). While you do not know when your appointment with death is, God knows when that day will be, who will be at your side, what the weather will be—all of it.
In the fifth act of Shakespeare’s masterpiece tragedy Hamlet two “clowns” (gravediggers) are preparing a grave for Ophelia, and there is a famous exchange of gallows humor between them:
First Clown: What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?
Second Clown: The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.
First Clown: I like thy wit well, in good faith: the gallows does well; but how does it well? It does well to those that do ill: now, thou dost ill to say the gallows is built stronger than the church: argal, the gallows may do well to thee. To’t again, come.
The Second Clown eventually admits that he does not know the answer to ‘What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?’ and the First Clown replies, “when you are askt this question next, say, ‘a grave-maker’: the houses that he makes lasts till doomsday” (V.i.46ff).
These two gravediggers continue their banter as Hamlet arrives, and as they continue their work they come across two skulls which they toss out of the grave. Hamlet holds the first skull and says, “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain’s jaw-bone, that did the first murder! It might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o’er-reaches; one that would circumvent God, might it not?” (V.i.75-79). At Ophelia’s graveside Hamlet is reminded that no matter who you are, you cannot circumvent God any more that you can circumvent death…“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When I was a kid the progressive rock band Kansas had their biggest hit with a melancholy ballad about our mortality drawn directly from a verse in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes—“All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again” (3:20). This song certainly connects with Ash Wednesday:
I close my eyes, only for a moment and the moment’s gone
All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind
Now don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, and all your money won’t another minute buy
Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind…
Everything is dust in the wind (from their 1977 album Point of No Return)
You are mortal. You are dust and to dust you shall return. You cannot circumvent death, and “all your money won’t another minute buy.”
So where is the gospel on Ash Wednesday?
In Psalm 103 which we read every year on Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of God’s love and compassion for mortals like us—“As a father cares for his children, so does the Lord care for those who fear him. For he himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:13-14, BCP 734).
Not only does God remember you are but dust, in Jesus Christ, God became incarnate, took that dust upon himself, became that dust in order to reconcile you who are formed of the dust to God—as we read today in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jesus knew exactly when his appointment with death was: Good Friday, when Jesus atoned for your sins on the cross, which means that the God who remembers that you are dust remembers your sins no more (Hebrews 8:12). Yes, you are dust and to dust you shall return…but that will not be the end of your story.
Several weeks from now during Holy Week we will read Psalm 22, a Messianic psalm that points to Good Friday, the psalm Jesus quoted on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Later in this psalm we read about Jesus’ suffering on the cross, “My mouth is dried out like a pot-sherd; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; and you have laid me in the dust of the grave” (Psalm 22:1; 15). On the evening of Good Friday Jesus was indeed laid in the dust of the grave.
But as we will celebrate at the end of Lent, Jesus did not remain “in the dust of the grave,” which means neither will you. After you fall down on your appointed day of death, you too will be raised up because God’s love actually does last forever—even longer than the earth sky, even past doomsday—and God’s love means you will be much more than dust in the wind.