Every year, on Ash Wednesday, many believers enter their church to take part in a ritual that has been performed for many centuries. The minister dips their thumb or finger into a bowl filled with black, powdery ashes and makes a sooty sign of the cross on each believer's forehead or hand. As they do so, they remind each person individually of their own mortality by saying the words God said to Adam in the Garden long ago—"remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" (Gen. 2:7). This ritual foretelling our ultimate future connects us with our ancient past. From the beginning of time all of humankind suffers the same inevitable end.
If you happen to live in a house with a basement that has windows, on some bright, sunny day descend into this underworld without turning on the light. (We're talking storage basement here, not family room.) Look at the sunlight penetrating the semi-darkness through the windows. There, in the sunbeams. Can you see it? If you're in my basement you can't miss it. Dust.
Within the beam of light, the dust floats, constantly moving, never ceasing. Dust that is visible only because of the illuminating light. And, amazingly, it is transformed by the light. It sparkles. It glitters. It dances and leaps. Though it may not compare to "The Nutcracker Ballet", I have sometimes stopped what I was doing simply to watch the dust dance.
I remember one time when my family and I sat in the balcony of a school auditorium waiting for a play to begin. My daughter, Abby, eight years old at the time, looked over at the spotlight beams shining from the projection booth just beside us.
"Look, Daddy, you can see the dust floating in the light," she said. Never stop looking for the simple joys in life, little girl, I thought, as I sat mesmerized by yet another performance of the dust dance.
This time I noticed something I hadn't observed before: maybe it was the air currents in the auditorium but in its waltz through the light the dust mostly moved upward. I watched the dance for several minutes, tracking each particle's ascent until it reached the limit of the beam. Then, it disappeared into the darkness.
Without light dust is invisible, unless it accumulates on a table where I can write my name in it. But then it is dull, gray, still. There is no dance. There is no reason to stop and watch. It doesn't sparkle or glitter or leap. It certainly doesn't mesmerize. It is lifeless, good for nothing more than to be swept off the table, or at least pushed around from one spot to the next.
But look! As some dust falls, escaping the clutches of the dirty rag, it is caught by a sun beam and magically becomes a glittering, sparkling jewel, dancing and leaping as it is transformed by the light that transports it aloft.
Perhaps that explains why believers in Christ continue to line up at the altar rail on Ash Wednesday year after year. We don't mind being reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
We are not afraid of death, for we know that because we have the Light of Jesus within us, our dust in the end will be caught up in his Light, transformed by his Light, and we will ascend - glittering, sparkling, dancing, and leaping for joy - in the presence of the Light that created our dust and gives us life eternal.