“Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.”

It was a Wednesday morning.  Nothing unusual was happening in the classroom where I was teaching a class of high school students.   Nothing unusual, except they were more attentive than usual. But, something was different. I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Then a bell rang. Not the usual “time for the class to end” bell, but a different bell.  Somehow the students knew what it meant. They slowly got out of their seats and headed in single file to the door, quietly.  “Miss,” one of the students said, “We’ll be back once we’ve been to the chapel and had the ashes put on our foreheads.”

Just then the Principal came into the classroom and ushered the students out – apologizing that she’d not advised me about the interruption ahead of time.   “The students will be back in the classroom in about half an hour”  she said.  And with that, she and the students left the classroom.  

Three months earlier, I had turned twenty. This was my first teaching position.  I was in a private school – a Roman Catholic school.  At that time, my knowledge of Christianity, let alone Roman Catholicism, was limited. Very limited.  Though I had been raised in a loving home, I had not been baptized nor exposed to a church that included rituals anywhere close to “Ashes on foreheads.”  All of it was so new to me.

The school was quiet. No one was in the corridors.  The only sound I heard came from the Chapel – quiet music, muted voices.  When the students returned to the classroom, their foreheads had a black substance smudged on it.   They were sombre, quiet. Something about them was different. But again, I couldn’t quite figure it out.   

When I asked them to tell me what had happened in the Chapel, the students seemed to take delight in being my teacher!  “Today is the day when we tell God we are very sorry for the times we’ve moved away and that we want to be better people.”  But, I wondered, why the public display of the cross on their foreheads?   “Ah, Miss, that reminds us that we’re all human and that we began as dust and will end as dust.”   

Sounded to me like an ugly threat – “You’re going to die!”  Well, I knew that one day I would die, but why would anyone want to go to church to be reminded, every year, that “from dust you have come; to dust you will go”?   It seemed incredibly maudlin to me.

After school that day, I encountered Harry, one of the high school students I tutored. He was one of the few non-Christians at the private Roman Catholic school he attended and so was exempt from Chapel. But there he was, with a smudged sign of the cross on his forehead. He told me that his friends said they were going to receive the imposition of ashes and invited him along.  He went, not because he wanted to, but because his friends had invited him and besides, he was curious about it all. 

When he received the ashes on his forehead, he said that he felt that something had changed.  He shared these words which he wrote in his journal … “As I received the ashes, all at once I realized in a whole new way, that it’s really true – “we are dust and we will return to dust when we diet.”   He realized at that moment that life is transitory … and that he wouldn’t live forever.

In Christian churches around the world, people gather to receive the ashes on their forehead and hear the words  “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return” on what is known as Ash Wednesday – the first day of the Season of Lent.  Those words are certainly no one’s favourite words, but they represent a truth of which is important to remember from time to time – our own mortality.  Sadly, September 11th did that.  Tragically, January 6th, did that.  People realized their own mortality.

Ash Wednesday is a sober reminder that we are mortal – not immortal.  Acknowledging our humanity, our vulnerability, our mortality, helps us to live more fully. One way to do that, is to receive the imposition of ashes on our foreheads.  That ritual is simply an outward symbol of what is hoped would happen internally and a commitment to be the best we can be.

Do we need to be a Christian to do that?  No.  Do we need to have experienced an Ash Wednesday service before?  No.  Do we need to be connected to a church to do that?  No.  All we need to do is accept our mortality, allow the ashes to be a sign that we recognize that our mortal life is a gift, and commit ourselves with the help of the Holy One, to use the rest of our mortal life to the very best of our ability. 

Interestingly, the imposition of ashes, is not just a Christian tradition. It was an ancient Jewish tradition and was a public sign of an individual’s repentance.  By the seventh century, the Christian church adopted it as part of the Church’s Lenten preparation before the Season of Easter.

Even during COVID, when churches were not open or people were reluctant to be among others during a pandemic, people found ways to receive the imposition of ashes. Churches became wonderfully creative!

Some supplied ashes for individuals/families so that they could sprinkle the ashes into the palm of their own or a family member’s hand and apply it themselves.  Some encouraged the use of a cotton Qtip which could be dipped into the ashes and placed on the forehead that way.  Other congregations gave members dirt, seed and water instead of ashes, acknowledging that from the dust of the world, new hope springs. 

Other churches encouraged people to mark their hearts with the sign of a heart or the Cross as an outward and visible sign of their intention to turn their heart over to God and experience God’s unconditional love and forgiveness in a new way, saying the words “Dust I am and to dust I shall return.”

Many foreheads around the world are marking the beginning of the Season of Lent as people hear the words with those words.

I cannot stop thinking of the people in Ukraine, a year later, still living in terror as explosions deafen; food shortages become critical; the cold and snow gnaw at bodies; visible exhaustion on the faces of young and old alike; fear is a reality. Ukrainians are continuing to live the reality of Ash Wednesday’s reminder of human mortality, every day.

Children who survive this assault by Russia on their country, will have bitter memories of childhood as their reality in their adult years – just as it was for those children who survived the Holodomor of 1932-22 and are now seniors in this present struggle.

The Holodmor – did you learn about the Holodomor (translation: ‘death by hunger’ – a famine engineered by the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin) in school? I didn’t. According to the 2010 findings of the Court of Appeal of Kyiv, there were losses due to famine around ten million people – and not just famine, but cannibalism for which, according to the Harriman Review, over 2500 people were convicted. As explosions hit, life is being lived in underground shelters, food and medication shortages escalate, and remembrances of the Ukrainian revolution, and terror grows that the Holodomor will once again be forced upon them by Russia.

The Holodomor made the desire for independence from Russia, a “need” … much more than a “want” … a life-long “need.” So it is not surprising that Ukrainians are fighting – again. Defending their country – standing firm for one another. Resilient in the face of terror and threat of reprisal, they are led by a courageous man, President Zelinskyy, his wife and his Cabinet members and the brave women and men who valiantly fight for and stand up for democracy.

In this country, Canada, there is a very large Ukrainian population as many Ukrainians arrived as refugees after the Holodomor so it is not surprising that Canada has stood with Ukraine for decades. On September 21, 2014, a statue entitled “Bitter Memories of Childhood” was unveiled outside the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to memorialize the Holodomor was erected and there are similar statues in other parts of Canada.

“Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return” is a reverberating reality in Ukraine and in the hearts of many around the world who ache for Ukrainians.

May no one ever take the precious gift of life for granted. May we uphold all who work and fight for freedom and democracy. If you observe the Season of Lent with the imposition of ashes, may gratitude be yours for the life you experience.

This prayer which I’ve adapted from the Alternate Lord’s Prayer found in A New Zealand Prayer Book might be of help as you think of Ukrainians today and in the coming days and of ourselves.

“Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be … in times of temptation and test, strengthen them and us; from trials too great to endure, spare them and us; from the grip of all that is evil, free them and us.” Amen. So be it. Amen.

Whatever way each of us chooses to observe Ash Wednesday, may we enter with reverence, humility and gratitude.

Ash Wednesday is gift … a precious opportunity to acknowledge our shared humanity, our political vulnerability, our individual mortality. May this Ash Wednesday be a moment of grace and lead to a holy Lent.
© June Maffin


Photo of “Bitter Memories of Childhood” statue source: Tim Worth