The Dust of Adam
David Mills on the Rite of Ash Wednesday
“When you fast,” Jesus says to us in the Sermon on the Mount, “do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear to men to be fasting. Truly, I say unto you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face; that you appear not to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place.”
So much, you might think, for the traditional imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, as practiced by many Western Christians since the early Middle Ages. In liturgical churches, the priest or pastor marks a small cross on your forehead with ashes, traditionally made by burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. As he does so, he tells you that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
This seems to be exactly the sort of thing Jesus rejected. After all, the point of smearing ashes on your forehead is to disfigure it in a way everyone else is bound to notice. But Jesus is referring to a private fast made public so that people would applaud. He is not referring to a public ritual, which by definition cannot be observed in secret and for observing which you earn no applause. Jesus himself observed the public feasts and fasts of his day.
A great value of liturgical disciplines is that you can do the things you ought to do without worrying about whether you are doing them for the right reasons. You win no fame or favor for doing what everyone is supposed to do. As a simple test, grab someone at church the Sunday after Ash Wednesday and say, “Hey, I had ashes put on my forehead last Wednesday.” The answer you will get will be some variation of “Big whoop.” It is like asking for approval because you didn’t sing a hymn during the sermon or came to the 11:00 service at 11:00.
And of course you may wipe off the ashes when you leave the service, so that it remains private in the sense of remaining within the gathered community. Having enacted the lesson liturgically, having the ashes smeared on your forehead, you will have ashes smeared on your heart.
But all that said, I would not ignore the usefulness of keeping the ashes as a public witness. I was, as a new Christian, deeply affected by seeing hundreds of people walking around Boston one late winter’s day with smudges on their foreheads, and finding out that evening, from a woman at a seafood restaurant, why she had that mark on her face. It had never occurred to me that people could be so confident in their religion as to wear its marks in public.
But what does the rite actually mean? What value does it have? I will try to exegete the rite for Ash Wednesday.
Exegeting liturgical rites and ceremonies is more an intuitive art than a textual science. The rites usually evolved over centuries, and the people who invented and developed them rarely if ever bothered to tell anyone what they were doing. The exegete has to intuit the logic of the rite and how it works in the lives of the worshipers. The accuracy of his conclusions depends on his sympathy and learning. He has to be able to hear the liturgy’s music. Some people, including a good many professional liturgists (if not most), are, alas, liturgically tone-deaf.
I assume that the long-established liturgies mean more than they may have been intended to mean. I can think of one liberal Episcopal liturgist who gets the wrong end of the stick with stunning consistency because he thinks that when he has found the practical origin of a practice he has thereby disposed of it. Candles, for him, are just lights. It does seem to me obvious that because man is a symbol-making creature, he will inevitably and rightly make the important things he does mean as much as possible. He will make even of necessities a dramatic icon.
If he has to use candles to light up the lectern, he will think of ways to turn them into symbols, by choosing a certain number, putting them in certain places, lighting them in a certain order, moving them at certain times. If he has to get people from one place to another, he will form a procession, putting the people in a symbolic order, dressing them in symbolic clothes, and adding other symbols, like the Cross of Jesus going on before.
To the rite itself. First the obvious: Ash Wednesday is the holy day on which you are asked to face the facts about yourself. It is the church year’s “downer.” On every other holy day—Christmas, Easter, Pentecost most obviously—we celebrate a great work of God’s, but on Ash Wednesday we are asked to remember why God did what he did in all those works we celebrate, and especially to see as clearly as possible our own role in sending his Son to die in such agony on the Cross.
It is no good asking God to work in your life if you are not willing to be honest with him, or yourself, about the mess he has to work with. You have to see a problem before you can get it fixed. You cannot put something in order until you see how far it is out of order. When someone has made a mess of his finances, and the credit card companies are chasing him and his checks keep bouncing and the electric company has turned off the lights, he has to find out how much money he has and how much money he owes to whom, before he can ever get out of debt. He has to face the facts.
We have to see the disorder of our lives if we are ever to accept God’s ordering. And more to the point, we have to see the problem clearly before we will know whom to ask for help. The less we know about ourselves, the more likely we are to be Pelagians, people who assume they can get themselves out of trouble without bothering God for help—and, were we honest about it, without submitting to his will. The best cure for Pelagianism is reality.
Letting someone smear ashes on your forehead while telling you that you are dirt is, of course, a statement that you have seen and accepted the facts about yourself. It is a sacramental enactment of something that is (we hope) going on in your heart. That is the obvious meaning. But I think the imposition of ashes also dramatizes St. Paul’s remark in 1 Corinthians that “since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” It has two movements: one corresponding to “As in Adam all die” and the other corresponding to “In Christ shall all be made alive.”
To see this, we will have to use the original, pre-“inclusivized” version. In Latin, it goes, “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” In the traditional English version, it goes, “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” The modern versions have all eliminated that “O man,” unwisely assuming it to be sexist and exclusive, rather than, as we shall see, a statement of the most extraordinary inclusion in the history of the cosmos.
The meaning of the rite depends upon the multiple meanings of man. In that word is the Christian hope conveyed. Without it, the declaration is simply a statement of an unchangeable reality, a declaration of hopelessness and despair. The removal of man in the modern rites eliminated the crucial allusions, or at best made them needlessly distant and obscure. The liturgical effect is to eliminate the hope that alone makes the facts—that we are dust and to dust we shall inevitably return—bearable.
As in Adam All Die
The rite has, as I said, two movements. The first dramatizes the truth that “in Adam all die.” The words “Remember, O man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return” are a quote from Genesis, which comes at the end of the list in which God tells Adam (“man” in Hebrew) what his disobedience will cost him—which is a description of what our disobedience is costing us. So it begins as a statement of our identity and the consequences of our identity.
“Remember, O man”: Remember, you descendent of Adam; remember, in the phrase from the Narnia Chronicles, O son of Adam, O daughter of Eve; remember, O original sinner, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return. Remember, you egotistical, preening, pathetic little fool, just who you really are. Or in the Living Liturgy: “Look, you dirtbag.” (More could be said about the significance of “O man,” given its generic use in Romans 2:1, 2:3, and 9:20.)
It is important to remember that we are not only children of Adam but willing children of Adam. We have provoked most justly God’s wrath and indignation against us, as the old Book of Common Prayer put it. It is not so much that we fell with Adam into sin, as that we jumped into it with our eyes wide open and a cheery wave to the crowd. We have chosen to return to the dust.
Note that as a sinner you are merely an example of a category, “man.” You are not Bob or Ted or Patricia or Ashley. You are just “man.” This reflects, I think, the Christian insight that sin destroys personality, that sin is a turning in upon yourself that makes you less you. As a sinner, you are an unoriginal, uninteresting, derivative, unimaginative bore. Witness, for example, the dwarfs at the end of C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle.
Think of people you have known who relate everything that happens in the world around them to themselves, almost always with either calculation or resentment: Think not just how miserable they are but how bone-wearyingly boring, because their world is so very, very small. To put it another way: Whose world is more interesting, wider, deeper, more filled with interesting facts and stories, whose conversation would be more enlightening, in whose world would you rather live: Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s or the average movie star’s?
So, in your sins, you are not even the unique individual you think yourself. You are not special. You are average, mediocre, run of the mill. But nevertheless, the rite recognizes that you are particularly interested in the fate of one boring sinner, yourself. Having established your status, the old rite goes on to pronounce your doom in the singular form: “Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” Thou: You, individually, you Bob, Ted, Patricia, and Ashley, are dust and will return to dust.
All this is conveyed in the action of the rite itself. You go forward and line up, either at the chancel steps or along the altar rail, and you receive the ashes with the same words everyone else hears. Remember what you are hearing when the priest says, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” You are hearing what is in essence your death sentence—your eternal death sentence. And it is delivered without the drama and pastoral sensitivity we think is our due. It is as if a doctor walked into his waiting room full of people with cancer, simply pointed to each one and said, “You’re going to die,” and turned around and walked back into his office and closed the door.
So we hear on Ash Wednesday that in Adam all died, which means that we are dead in our sins. It is a fact of some importance, but one we spend most of our lives ignoring.
That is the obvious meaning of the rite. Because you are a sinner, you are going to die and disappear, your decayed body scattered like the gold dust at the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a symbol of the vanity and futility of human life. In Christian worship, however, you cannot avoid the Christian hope. Sin does not have the final word, even here, when your doom is being pronounced. As St. Paul says, “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Where in this statement is hope? In the multiple meanings of man. The person who heard the old words on Ash Wednesday would have had fixed in his mind the words of the Nicene Creed: “. . . who for us men and our salvation became incarnate of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” To be a descendent of Adam is also, and more importantly, to be a man or woman for whom the Son of God became man, died, and rose again.
So the rite is saying: Remember who you are, by your own choice, but remember also who you are by God’s choice. Remember, O Son of Adam, that you are not only a Son of Adam but that you are also a child of the Father through adoption. You are dust, yes, but you are redeemed dust, you are dust that God will reassemble. You may look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. After all, the God who created us from the dust of the earth can just as easily recreate us from the dust into which we have decayed.
It is this second part of the message that changes the imposition of ashes from a drama of despair to a drama of repentance. Without the Christian hope, the rite would be a poetic statement of the ultimate futility of human desire and effort, a biblical version of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” In that poem, you will remember, a traveler is describing a broken statue he saw in the desert,
That is the best we can hope for, a sort of grand romantic realism, without the Lord who for us men was made man.
The Ash Wednesday hope is conveyed in the action of the rite itself. You receive the ashes at the same place and in the same posture you receive Communion, and in fact will receive Communion a few minutes later, with its assurance of God’s favor. And psychologically, at least, it is a “safe place,” indeed a sort of home: precisely the sort of place you would want to hear bad news. And the ashes mark a cross upon your forehead, a sign not only of the cost of your sins but also of your redemption from your sins. (In the early Middle Ages, the ashes were dumped on the head, which is probably more fun, at least for the officiant, but not as good a symbol.)
A Double Meaning
So the imposition of ashes has a double meaning, one despairing, because it describes the reality of what we have made ourselves; the other hopeful, because it describes the new reality God has made for us. For the Christian, hope trumps despair. “In Adam all die” and “In Christ shall all be made alive” are both true, but Christ has conquered death.
But this is not a reason to feel good about yourself on Ash Wednesday. That would be to presume upon God’s good will and take the Lord’s death for granted. Ash Wednesday is a fast day given us to remember what we have done and to try to learn how much of the old Adam remains in us. And of course the more you see what Jesus did for you, the more you will want to face your sins, to track them down to the places they have hidden, drag them into the light, and with God’s help drive them away.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“The Dust of Adam” first appeared in the March 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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