When we receive our ashes on Ash Wednesday, the minister says “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, reminding us that God created us out of the earth and to earth we will return at death. Curiously, this is a belief we share with materialistic atheists who think we are nothing but matter, molecules swirling around randomly in a universe that is ultimately meaningless. It is true that we came from dust but Christians believe this dust was itself created by God. Creation did not just happen eons ago at the Big Bang and then God let it drift off leaving it to its own devices (a form of belief called Deism). Rather creation is a continual process whereby God, our creator, sustains the universe, ourselves included, at every moment of its existence.
Far from being meaningless, the imposition of ashes on our foreheads is pregnant with meaning. The minister places them on our foreheads in the form of a cross. We will return to ashes but through the Cross and Christ’s Resurrection, we will also rise to eternal life. Thus, ‘returning to ashes’ is not for us the end of the story as it for atheists. Rather it is the beginning of a new life in the Risen Lord and, through him, in the life of the Trinity. We do not really understand how this will come about. But we have a glimpse of what it means in the Gospel account of the Transfiguration when Jesus’s body shone with blazing light. After the Resurrection, too, we see that Christ’s risen body was a real physical body but utterly transformed: he could eat breakfast with the apostles but also appear and disappear. This is why Lent is for us a time of joy and hope.