When I was a minister in the Church of England, one of my tasks was to lead funeral services. The words of the ancient Book of Common Prayer were beautiful and infused with the words of Scripture. One of the most famous lines which many people think comes from the Bible are the words “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
This phrase alludes to a Bible verse in Genesis, but it comes from the words that are said as the coffin is lowered into the ground. The full words in the splendid old language read:
Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change the body of our low estate that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
On Ash Wednesday these solemn words are also referenced as ashes are imposed; they resonate as a reminder of our mortality. They echo deeply in our hearts and minds as a reminder of our broken condition, our frailty, and the sin that separates us from God.
From the earth
The beautiful story of mankind’s creation in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis tells how God created Adam. “Then the Lord God formed the manout of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (2:7).
In Hebrew the word Adam means “man” or “mankind,” so Adam is therefore the father of humanity. However, the word adam is also the masculine form of the word adamah which means “ground,” “earth,” or “clay.” The word is also connected to adom, which means “red,” and admoni, which means “ruddy,” and dam which means “blood.” The richness of this word means that Adam our father was formed from the red clay of the earth, he is a creature of blood, and his red blood flows in our veins.
The same multiple levels of meaning exist in English. The word humanity comes from the root word humus which means “earth.” From the same root come the words humility and humor. Having a sense of humor and being humble are all linked with the idea of being “down to earth.”
Therefore, when we remember that “we are from the earth and to the earth we will return,” we also are reminded of our vital connection to Adam, our first parent. That connection is not only through Adam being formed from the earth and our bodies being returned to the earth when buried — we are also connected because we all share the common blood of humanity.
The Old Testament says “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11), and it was this truth that led the Hebrews to consider a blood sacrifice necessary for the forgiveness of sin. If blood was shed through violence and life was lost, then blood had to be shed in compensation for the loss. In this way the blood sacrifice became an important part of the religious action of the ancient peoples. As the blood flowed down and mingled with the earth, the blood of humanity returned to the earth from whence it came.
The second Adam
Throughout the Old Testament the blood sacrifice was required for forgiveness, and when Jesus Christ died on the cross, the first Christians saw their Jewish faith fulfilled. Jesus was not only the Lamb of God who was slain; St. Paul also saw him as the “second Adam.”
As Adam was formed from the earth and was the father of all mankind, so Jesus Christ, as the second Adam, became the representative of all the sons and daughters of Adam. What Adam lost in disobedience, the second Adam restored in his total obedience. In seeing Jesus as the second Adam, St. Paul recognized that the work of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection was the action of God himself coming down to earth.
The symbolism carries through in the birth and death of Jesus Christ. We are familiar with the story that Jesus was born in a stable, but another ancient tradition says that stable was located in a cave. Archeological evidence confirms that simple people in Judea during the time of Christ often housed their animals in caves. There is also evidence of villagers living in homes carved in the hillsides around Bethlehem, so Jesus’ birth in a cave connects with the idea that, as the second Adam, he too came from the earth. After his death Jesus’ body was buried in a tomb-cave so that, like Adam, he who came from the earth at death returned to the earth.
Dust and ashes
At the beginning of Lent, we receive ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality, but it is also a symbolic link to our identification by faith with Jesus himself. As we remember that we are from earth and to earth we shall return, so we affirm that we are in Christ, the second Adam, who did the same.
When the ashes are imposed, the minister says, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This phrase also has its roots in the Genesis story. After Adam and Eve fall into sin God drives them from the Garden of Eden with the solemn reminder, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
In the Old Testament putting ashes on the head was a sign of sorrow and grief. When his family died, Job put ashes on his head and the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel called for the people to wear sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their sorrow for sin. The Hebrews also put ashes on their heads as a mark of their humility and their awareness of being “from the earth.” Ashes were not only a sign of their earthiness, but also a sign that everything worthless in their life had been burnt up and destroyed through their discipline of prayer and their asceticism.
Christians continued the practice of using ashes as an external sign of repentance. The early Church theologian Tertullian said that confession of sin should be accompanied by the penitent lying in sackcloth and ashes, while the historian Eusebius, writing in the third century, recounts how a repentant Christian covered himself with ashes when begging the pope to readmit him to communion.
By the end of the 10th century it was customary across Western Europe (but not in Rome) for all the faithful to receive ashes on the first day of Lent. In 1091 this custom was then ordered by Pope Urban II to be extended to the Church in Rome. Soon after the day was called “Ash Wednesday.”
The public penance that grave sinners underwent before being admitted to Holy Communion just before Easter lasted throughout Lent. On the first day of their 40-day fast, they were sprinkled with ashes and dressed in sackcloth. Toward the end of the first millennium, this discipline of public penance was dropped, and Lent began to be seen as a general penitential season for all Christians. Ashes were imposed on all to mark the beginning of the season.
At the Protestant revolution the receiving of ashes was widely discouraged as being a vain Roman superstition, but in recent years the popularity of the custom has become widespread.
Anglicans, Lutherans, and some Presbyterians have joined Catholics in the custom, and some enterprising pastors have started a movement called Ashes to Go: Ministers head out to street corners, train stations, and other public places on Ash Wednesday to offer the imposition of ashes as a means of evangelization.
Signs and symbols of salvation
The ancient signs and symbols of salvation register deeply in the human heart. In our screen age, words mean less, while the visual actions of the faith become more important. Symbols and symbolic actions transcend particular cultures and time periods. They have universal meaning and appeal.
The old words, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” connect with the realization that we are all mortal and our time on earth is limited. It is up to us to make best use of that time and turn our hearts and minds to the Lord.
As we enter the season of Lent, this realization becomes more urgent. All of us are dust. We are from the earth, and to the earth we will return. We do well, therefore, to receive the ashes in humility and remember that we are human — and recognize that even the very word human connects us back to the earth from which we came.