The sun bore down on my neck as I walked through neatly laid stones, each row like another line in a massive book. My eyes strained to take in all of the information—name, age, rank, country—and perhaps also death itself, the fragility of life, the harsh reality of war. In that field of graves, a war memorial for men lost as prisoners of war, slaves laboring to construct the Burma-Siam railway, I felt as the psalmist: “laid low in the dust.” Or like Job, sitting among the dust and ashes of a great tragedy. Then one stone stopped my wandering and said what I could not. On an epitaph in the middle of the cemetery was written: “There shall be in that great earth, a richer dust concealed.”(1)
It is helpful, I think, to be reminded that we are dust. We are material. When we die, we remain material. It is a reminder to hold as we move through life—through successes, disappointments, questions, and answers. For the Christian, it is also a truth to help us approach the vast and terrible circumstances leading up to the crucifixion of the human son of God. Beginning with the ashes of Ash Wednesday, the journey through Lent into the light and darkness of Holy Week is for those made in dust who will return to dust, those willing to trace the breath that began all of life to the place where Christ breathed his last. It is a journey that expends everything within us.
There is a Latin word that was once used to denote the provisions necessary for a person going on a long journey—the clothes, food, and money the traveler would need along the way. “Viaticum” was a word often used by Roman magistrates. It was the payment or goods given to those who were sent into the provinces to exercise an office or perform a service. The viaticum was vital provision for an uncertain journey. Fittingly, the early church employed this image to speak of the Eucharist when it was administered to a dying person. The viaticum, the bread of Communion, was seen as sustenance for Christians on their way from this world into another. Sometime later, the word was used not only to describe a last Communion, but as the Sacrament of Communion for all people. It is as if to say: our communion with Christ is provision for the way home. The viaticum is God’s answer to Jacob’s vow, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God.”(2) It is what Christ offered when he said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” The journey from dust to dust and back to the Father’s house would be far too great without it—without him.
Today, our humanity is beckoned to face its humble beginnings on this Ash Wednesday. We are given 40 days to journey with this thought, to follow in the vicarious humanity of the Son where he leads us, until we are leveled by the bright sadness of Holy Week. From the invitation to consume his body and blood in the Last Supper to the desolation of that body on the Cross, we are undone by events that began before us and will continue to be remembered long after we are gone. The season of Lent is a stark reminder that we are, in the words of Isaiah or the sentiments of the psalmist, like grass that withers, flowers that blow away like dust. But so we are, in this great earth, a richer dust concealed. Walking in cemeteries we realize this; communing with Christ we encounter it. Walking through Lent as dust and ashes invites us to see our need for the Father’s unchanging provision: We are offered the Cross, communion and forgiveness, the body of one broken, hope in one raised, and the life everlasting.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) This is a line from a poem of Rupert Brookes entitled “1914.”
(2) Genesis 28:20-22.