Dust Thou Art and to Dust...

by Rev. Canon Stewart Murray, Incumbent at St. Barnabas, Ottawa

published in ‘Crosstalk’, February, 2018

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, has been a very difficult day for me since the beginning of my priesthood. I will never forget my first Ash Wednesday as the assistant curate at St. Richard’s (now Julian of Norwich) when I first pressed my thumb into the bowl of ashes, made the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the people lining the communion rail and said the words “Remember that thou art dust and to dust shalt thou return.” It was a stark reminder that a central part of my ministry and of the Church was to live with the reality of the certainty of suffering and death.

The Christian faith is unwavering in shining the light of hope and truth into the dark corners of our world and of our hearts – but our modern society would rather not deal with suffering and death. We are a society that is focused on the individual and on our individual wants and desires as the only way of discovering what gives meaning and purpose to living. With the dismissal of the experience of those who have gone before us and acceptance of the idea that only our experience is of value, we no longer have a way of understanding suffering and death. Ads of every kind want to sell us a vision that we can forestall and even perhaps avoid any kind of suffering, and maybe even live for ever, if only we use this pill, or cream or dedicate ourselves to a rigorous regime of exercise. A challenge to this way of thinking occurs when, despite all our efforts and denials, suffering touches our lives and shatters our carefully constructed world; we find we have no means of coming to terms with the new reality.

Suffering takes many forms, physical, mental and spiritual. The pain of the loss of someone we love in death or the end of a relationship can be as devastating as physical pain. The spiritual suffering caused by the shattering of our view of ourselves and of our self-made world can lead to depression and hopelessness. Where can we turn to find a new way of understanding ourselves and our world? As Christians, we turn to Christ and the Gospel to find hope and a new way of understanding our life. In the Christ of the Gospel we see the living God entering into the brokenness and suffering of our world, not a sanitized Christ of the stained-glass windows but one who in the midst of suffering brings hope.

The image of Christ crucified speaks in a powerful way that in Christ God has touched the very depths of the human experience of suffering and loss. By the grace of God, we can find new strength and hope in the midst of our suffering. No one would choose to suffer, but suffering can open us to a deeper relationship with Christ who knows the loneliness of suffering, and the despair that can be so devastating. Suffering can help us to see the people and the world in a deeper way and to focus on what is most important in life. As a parish community, suffering and difficulties gives us an opportunity to live the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans: “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” So often suffering and difficulty isolate us from others, but as a Christian community, we have the opportunity to be a tangible instrument of Christ’s loving presence.

We are but dust, but by the saving work of Christ we are now children of the living God, restored to eternal life and called to share in the ministry of Christ and His Church. Some dust – such Glory.