As we prepare for Lent we might reflect on the place of creation throughout salvation history. We do so because the dialogue between heaven and earth culminated in Jesus Christ—true God, true man, the Word of God made present now for the ages in the Eucharist.
Firstly, ashes are one of the material signs that bring the cosmos into the Liturgy. The most important signs are those of the Sacraments: water, oil, bread and wine, which become true sacramental elements through which we receive the grace of Christ which comes among us. The ashes are not a sacramental sign, but are nevertheless linked to prayer and the sanctification of the Christian people. In fact, before the distribution of ashes on the heads of each one of us — which we will soon do — they are blessed according to two possible formulas: in the first, they are called “austere symbols”, in the second, we invoke a blessing directly upon them, referring to the text in the Book of Genesis which can also accompany the act of the imposition: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (cf. Gen 3:19).
Thus the sign of the Ashes recalls the great fresco of creation which tells us that the human being is a singular unity of matter and of the Divine breath, using the image of dust moulded by God and given life by the breath breathed into the nostrils of the new creature.
In Genesis, the symbol of dust takes on a negative connotation because of sin. Whereas before the fall the soil was a totally good element, irrigated by spring water (cf. Gen 2:6) and through God’s work was capable of producing “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9).
After the fall and the divine curse it was to produce only “thorns and thistles”, and only in exchange for the “toil” and the “sweat of your face” would it bear fruit (cf. Gen 3:17-19). The dust of the earth no longer recalls the creative hand of God, one that is open to life, but becomes a sign of an inexorable destiny of death: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
And lastly, I end with this video from Nicolaus Wegner, an artist in Wyoming. As St. Bonaventure and so many other saints and Christian mystics tell us, we can more easily ponder the creator by standing in awe of creation. This video excels at doing just that: allowing nature’s majesty—its laws, its beauty, its power—to remind us that there are realities greater than us. As the anceint writers of scripture knew, taking time to see what's going on overhead is a good way to consider how our ways are not God's ways. And that should remind us that it really is best to repent and live His Gospel, which guides us from death into life.