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Memento homo

March 17, 2011

Republished from the very fine blog, Free Range Anglican.

Remember, O man…

I’m reminded of the scene from History of the World Part I, where the Roman servant went with visitors to Caesar reminding them as they entered the throne room, “Remember, thou art mortal. Remember thou art mortal. Remember thou art mortal.”


Ash Wednesday is the liturgical way of remembering our mortality while we approach the king. Remember O man that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.

People ask why we do this. Why put on ashes, why the liturgy, why the day?

The simple answer, that ashes were an Old Testament sign of grieving and repenting, is too simple. Signs and symbols are rich, but if they don’t have meaning for us, they are empty for our people. That was then, this is now.

But we’re in continuity with the people of “Then”… we put on ashes to remember our roots. Moreso, we remember that our roots are “dust” of the earth, the hands of God shaping what was worthless adam (earth) into Adam (man), transforming intimacy. Remember, o man that thou art dust, but the hand of God touched you. Remember your roots, o mankind.

My father used to tell us when we went out of the house to remember our family name. You bear the mark of who you are, you represent your people. You are dust, you represent dust, you will return to dust. Who you are before God is first and foremost dust. You’re marked with dust.

But you’re marked also with the sign of the cross, the identity not of who you are but of who you are becoming. Not of what you are but of whose you are. Not of the dross that is burned away to dust, but of the fire that refines the gold. You are marked, you are dust.

We do these things because it is like attending our own funerals every year. Its not about just where we came from but where we are going. Our destiny is the grave. We’ve earned it in our sin, our nature cannot escape it. To dust we return. But even as we go to the grave we make our song… Remember you are dust, remember whose you are. The grave could not hold him, nor can it hold those who are marked as his own.

I think this Lent will be about dust and dross and what gets burned away. About dust and ashes and grieving and funerals. And about resurrection and what comes after the end of everything.

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