The Uncomfortable Truth

As a father shows compassion to his children,

    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.

For he knows our frame;

    he remembers that we are dust.

-Psalm 103.13-14



Today is Ash Wednesday, which for most churches, is a whole ordeal. They burn the branches from last year’s Palm Sunday (the day that celebrates Jesus’ big entry into Jerusalem) and 332 days later the members take time out of their busy hump-day schedule to head over to the church where the minister or pastor or priest grabs their face, looks them right in the eyes saying “From dust you came and to dust you shall return” and wipes the ashes onto their foreheads in the symbol of the cross. And then they say, “Amen” and they go back to work.


For most of us at City Church, this probably sounds pretty uncomfortable. In the auditorium at the PAC, we can generally avoid unwanted physical contact with other folks. My dad, Pastor Pete, usually does not grab your face when you walk into church; he is—you know—socially well adjusted like that. We try to make the auditorium a comfortable space for all of us to worship and that includes not dousing the place with dust.


The truth is the ritual of Ash Wednesday is pretty uncomfortable, even for the people to whom it is important. It’s physically unpleasant with your face cradled in someone else’s hands… someone who has been cradling other people’s faces all day… with their germs and their facial hair. It is socially awkward to have to stare into the eyes of someone, not even an arm’s length away from your eyebrows. But it is truly unsettling to hear the words that are uttered every time a Christian receives their ashes: you are dust and to dust you shall return.


Those words come from the curse that God lays upon humanity in Genesis 3. In this chapter, God explains to the first humans the ramifications of their sin. Work will be hard. Relationships will be hard. Life will be hard. But, worst of all, every person’s time on this earth will end with death. It is the very same warning that God gives to Adam and Eve before they eat the fruit. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen 2.17)


You see, before the fall, God would have said, “You are dust, but you are dust headed for glory.” Once sin comes into the world, we move from being glorious dust to mortal dust. Without sin, the graph of our lives moves up and to the right. Without sin, human life goes on in an unbroken, immediate, life giving proximity to God. But as the unavoidable consequence of sin, humanity faces a life that ends in death.


That is the uncomfortable truth. We are all going to die one day. We are all moving back towards the dust from which we came. In America, we do a lot to avoid that uncomfortable truth. We do not often witness scenes death. We spend a mind-numbing fortune in the medical industry each year keeping death at bay. Death is not a part of most of our every day experiences. But it is real, as we all certainly know.


Ash Wednesday is meant to be a day—just one day a year—when someone grabs our attention, grabs our face, gets uncomfortably close to us and reminds us of the uncomfortable truth. You are dust and you’re headed back to dust. Of course, that’s not the end of the story.


Death was not the end of Jesus’ story. Death is not the end of the story of those who trust in Him. The end of the story is resurrection. The end of the story is Easter Sunday, the day when God overcomes sin and death in Jesus’ own body. Forty days from now, we will all gather at City Church to celebrate the fact that death is not, ultimately, the final word. But without Ash Wednesday, that Easter celebration loses a bit of its joy, doesn’t it?


Without the curse of sin and death that the first people incurred, our own release from death is hard to appreciate. Without an honest awareness that life is often hard, the promise of a Savior is like a Band-Aid on unbroken skin. Without a day to square up to the uncomfortable truth—we are dust and to dust we shall return—a day to celebrate eternal life loses is life-giving power.


So take an uncomfortable minute today to reflect on the fact that this life of yours will eventually end. You will—just like every other person ever—lay down in the dust from which you came. That minute is, believe it or not, a good way prepare yourself for the rest of the season of Easter, for the joy of the resurrection, and the hope we celebrate in Jesus Christ.


-Peter Hartwig