This is an outline of a sermon I gave on Ash Wednesday this year. Some people found it helpful, so I've written up my notes.
The Hebrew words for “dust” (aphar) and “ashes” (epher) are very closely linked, and the two are often paired, both in Scripture and in everyday life. It is helpful to look through something of a Biblical theology of dust and ashes.
Creation and Fall
Adam was originally formed out of dust.
The LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
Genesis 2:7, ESV
Adam's name is even derived from the word for “ground” - his identity seems to be linked to the fact that he's come from the ground, from the dust. After the Fall, the curse that is placed on Adam is that he will return back to dust.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Dust and ashes are symbolic of our mortality and hence also our fallen humanity – we come from dust and return to dust. In 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul is contrasting Adam and Jesus, he does so by describing Adam as a “man of dust”. It can also therefore be a sign of judgement – the result of God's judgement is that we all return to dust.
Humiliation and Humility
Because of this, people often take dust and ashes as a symbol that they have come near to death and of utter humiliation. People put dust on their heads or roll in ashes as a sign of mourning (e.g. 2 Sam 13:19).
It's also a sign of humility. The Tower of Babel was in some senses people trying to escape from the dust and reach their own way to heaven. But that contrasts with Abraham, who does not try to be anything other than a man of the ground. He even describes himself as a man who is “just dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27).
It's therefore something that people can choose to take on as a sign that we recognise our mortality and the gap between us and God, especially with repentance. So Job's response to being rebuked by God is that he repents “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
Redeemed from Dust
But there is hope. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed – reduced to ashes, and that ash could provide forgiveness for people of dust.
But there is far more. The dust is the place where God meets us, and from which he transforms us. Here's part of Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2:
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.
1 Samuel 2:7-8