Ashes were once something, even a number of things, and are now a residue -- the original solidity and identity are gone, and what is left swirls around in a light breeze. Much the same goes for dust, even more indefinite and drifting. What was the dust that is now in my room?
Ash Wednesday could hardly make more visible and tangible the transience of things and our mortality. We can certainly see the point the liturgy is getting at, we are touched by its meaning. The ashes used in the liturgy come from the branches blessed last year for Palm Sunday, and this adds to the poignancy: the crowd has dispersed, the tumult is stilled, the cries of 'Hosanna' are inaudible now. All the vitality and exuberance, the hopes and the joy embodied in the palms are now a small heap of ashes.
Looking at dust and reflecting on ashes makes us pensive, but then there is much to think about at the start of Lent.
The expression 'dust and ashes', a dictionary tells us, means something very disappointing. Matter and objects perish, sometimes leaving even less of a trace than a handful of dust or ashes. We can extend the scope of our reflection beyond objects to include the disappointment of relationships and plans, the crumbling of achievement.
However, at this point, slowly perhaps and in hope, the Christian is led further by the liturgy. Dust and ashes are very disappointing, but the disappointment comes from a sense of frustration, from realizing that both creation in general and we human beings in particular were not meant by God to be like this. Talking of dust, and using ashes liturgically, need not make us accept defeat and annihilation.
We do not gather on Ash Wednesday to commemorate the futility of creation. We Christians are too hopeful to reduce ourselves to a handful of dust, and too realistic simply to fantasise that grace is magic. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are the residue of the celebration of Passion Sunday. The full force of destruction crashed on to Jesus Christ, the destructiveness of death and of sin, and he was buried in a tomb, the place of decay and the place of dust. Yet his passion was not futile, and neither was his whole embodied life. His resurrection from the dead is a recreation that is more than the immortality of the soul because it also bodily. Our hope includes a scarcely understood expectation that there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
But everything has its time, and we must not move too quickly from Ash Wednesday to Easter, forgetful of the kind of journey faith is.
So we need to start Lent in humility -- that is, close to the ground, close to our earthiness: remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Even for the baptized there cannot be presumption about our ultimate destiny, and not all we are and do is edifying, constructive of a solid Christian identity. Grace is given for struggle. We are responsible, needing to repent and do penance (in part, today's symbolism points to this), and to restart under God's grace so as not to drift away insubstantially from the full meaning and identity that our lives are meant to have.
This drift into the unrelieved disappointment of dust and ashes comes from letting go of God, our neighbour and our selves. The traditional practices of Lent make us grasp again the essentials for growth -- a greater love of God (prayer), a more generous love of neighbour (alms giving), and a truer love of ourselves (fasting). It is love that forms and holds together our deepest and most lasting identity, it is love that unites and resists the drift into what in the end fails and comes apart. God holds us in his love.
As we recommit ourselves on Ash Wednesday to build our lives from such loves, a practical yet far-reaching decision, we are given far more than we give. At one and the same time, and this is a feature of Christian life, we are realistic and hopeful.