One of the formulae that the minister uses in the distribution of ashes is “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That line has roots in Genesis 3:19 and recalls the Hebrew wordplay that the adam, the human being, comes from the adamah, the dust or soil. However, in that story, gaining the knowledge of good and evil brings with it fear and pride and shame, a need to hide our nakedness from God. We can’t stand to let God or other people or even ourselves see how deep our brokenness really goes, so we “clothe” our egos, not only with more “superficial” coverings like being amongst “the beautiful people,” but also with more sophisticated coverings like how many books we have read, how many good deeds we have done, or how often we go to church. We seem condemned to try to buttress our egos in any way possible, which is why any of those things, even the religious ones (perhaps especially the religious ones), can become a means of convincing ourselves that we are real, that we are successful at life, that we are not ashes.
This is why the readings on a day like Ash Wednesday, a day with the external sign of the ashes on the forehead, can be so ambivalent to the use of external signs – Jeremiah tells the people, “Rend your hearts, not your garments,” and Jesus warns people about looking for ego-validations when fasting, praying, and giving alms. The readings today don’t say, “Don’t fast, don’t pray, don’t give alms” but “Don’t think you are something special because you are fasting and praying and giving alms – don’t use these things to prove to yourself or other people or God how holy you are.” Cobbling together that kind of identity sounds more substantial than the nakedness of our truest self, because it lets us feel proud about ourselves, but finally what the ashes are calling us back to is the capacity of the spiritually naked self for immediacy with God – humility rather than ego inflation, vulnerability rather than self-protection. That entails the capacity to stand without defenses before God, to hand ourselves over to the death of the small self, the ego self, confident that in the death that feels like breaking down, we break through. That kind of self-emptying faith says that despite the fact that we haven’t earned anything, can’t earn anything, don’t deserve it, we can stand in confidence before the God who is “mercy within mercy within mercy.”