When God drove our first parents from the Garden, he reminded Adam, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gn 3:19). We hear these words each year on Ash Wednesday, when the priest places ashes on our foreheads, a reminder of our mortality and the seriousness of the Lenten pilgrimage we are about to begin.
Throughout the Old Testament ashes signify sorrow and repentance. Jeremiah commands Israel to mourn its impending doom when he says, “dress in on sackcloth, roll in ashes” (Jer 6:26). When Job emerges from his harrowing face-to-face encounter with God, he says, “I have spoken but did not understand.… Therefore I … repent in dust and ashes” (Jb 42:3-6). Jesus employs similar imagery when he criticizes his listeners’ hardness of heart: “Woe to you … if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt 11:21).
Ashes and dust amount to the same thing. Neither is particularly pleasant, and both remind us God used some pretty unattractive material when he created us. Lent reminds us how much Christ took on through the Incarnation and what he offered up to us on the cross.