And to the man [God] said . . . “Cursed is the ground in its separation of you. In pain you will eat from it all the days of your life; Thorns and thistles shall come out towards you and you will eat plants of the field. In sweat of your nose you will eat bread until you return to the ground.
Remember, apart from us you took. Therefore, you are dust and to dust you will return” – Genesis 3:17-19
Dust. Ash. It’s such gritty, grimy gunk. It gets stuck under your nails, it stains your clothes. When the grass withers, all that is left is dust. When the fire stops burning all that remains is ash. But today – I receive this gritty, grimy gunk and I put it on my forehead – where all the world will see it.
Ashes on my forehead and dust in my veins.
See, the secret of the Garden of Eden, the one we miss in our cookie-cutter Sunday school class, is the placement of the trees. The tree of life may be at the center of the garden, the place where all life comes forth. But what about the other tree? Where did it come from? Well, if you talk to a well-studied Rabbi (or the early fathers of our faith) you might be surprised to know that the other tree grew outside the garden (I know, it’s easily missed); in the garden of our hearts. And so we ate apart from God. We took from a fruit that grew within us, and not within God’s life-garden.
And so, God reminded Adam – reminds us – that are hearts are nothing more than dust. Our minds are nothing more than dust. Our souls are nothing more than dust. Our blood is nothing more than dust. And to the dust, we will return.
So today I find myself fasting and smearing on ash, like the people of a repentant Nineveh. For they too knew what it was like to eat form a tree apart from God. Today, I join their community, and I repent to my LORD. In just a few hours, ash will cover my forehead as my tummy ever rumbles. And I will repent for the fruit that I have eaten from within myself. And so, the ash of repentance mixes with the dust within my very veins.
But today marks the beginning of a season, a season where dust and ash follow after a very dusty Messiah. And I will follow this dusty Messiah with my ashy self. And so I remember that we – He and I – are dust and to earth we will return.
And there, I will remain with Him, which is how Our story ends . . . unless you wait three days.