In my brand of Christianity - Roman Catholicism, today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten fast season. I grew up in a Protestant group that noddeed at Ash Wednesday and Lent but did not really get into fasting or "giving things up for Lent." We certainly never ate fish on Fridays, which is how cradle Catholics grew up in the United States, any way. My husband still shudders at the thought of tuna casserole and bran muffins.
Ashes in the Roman Catholic observance are created by burning the left-over palms from last Palm Sunday. This is actually pretty cool to think about. These recreate the palms that were waved by the crowds in welcome as Jesus entered Jerusalem in apparent triumph. They are then burned to create the ashes for the season to prepare for the next commemoration of His crucifixion. The ashes are daubed on by the priest with one of three muttered proclamations. "Remember, oh Man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return," is one. You can see that the idea is to think about our mortality, and the fleeting nature of this world.
Since 9/11, I have thought about the ashes in a broader sense as well. Ashes came to mean more, after those attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the ill-fated airliner. The individual people, mixed with the remains of buildings, office materials, paper, carpets, airliners, all turned to fine ash. Scattered over miles and miles of New York, Pennsylvania and D.C., and farther, on breezes, water, and people's clothes. We never knew people and buildings could be so completely incinerated outside of firebombings. What a discovery.
But I never view dust or ash as the end point. It returns to dust, to the earth. As long as there is a viable ecosystem in place, it returns to life again. We rise, in a most literal sense of the word, regardless of our faith. Quite easily proven, we rise, with flowers, trees, grass, algae, lichens. And with the animals that depend on and devour those base links in the food chain, we rise further.
I cannot begin to imagine what happens to the consciousness that seems to be ME when I die. I hope and try to believe that I find heaven at the end. It would be lovely to find that I continue intact in a happier way afterward. I would be ecstatic to find that I can meet people I have loved again after death divides us. But what I know, beyond all doubt, is that my dust, or ashes, what remains of my body after death, will sooner or later, be part of the earth again. I hope the ashes rise again, phoenix-like, to shine in the sun again. So, man, and woman, too, remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return!
The decoration of a phoenix rising from its fiery nest of ashes is a religious needlepoint tapestry photographedy by Steve and Mary Skjold and for sale ($195 U.S) at http://www.painetworks.com/pages2rf/fj/fj0546.html