I looked across the group who had gathered at the front of the sanctuary. I had just marked them with the sign of the cross in ash. It was the ash of palm branches and the ash of our prayers. I had said to them, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These words are biblical words; they come directly from the third chapter of Genesis. These words are the words of God to creatures who thought themselves to be gods. And yet I looked at those marks, on the heads of my friends, and thought them undeserving of such heaviness. I felt as though we had done something unspeakable. In a way we had. We had spoken aloud our mortality. We had marked our bodies with it. We bore on our foreheads the prospect of our funerals.
It is in this very ash and dust that we will wait these next forty days in expectation of the victory of Easter. The sign of the cross is the setting for Christ’s victory over evil. There is more: to accompany its Christological meaning this sign also carries a certain natural goodness. In the memory of our earthy origins we find our connection to the rest of creation. Just as the other creatures, we too come from the dust. Contrary to it’s common interpretation, the sign of the cross is an ecological symbol. It reminds us that we are not only those who move and shake the world. And to that the sign adds at least one more gift, this one quite obvious. The sign of the cross denotes our limitation. We are not God. We cannot solve every problem. We are dust. The sign of the cross worn on our skin is unseemly, then, because it is an acknowledgement of vulnerability. But if it is that, then it is itself a prayer. In praying it we join a multitude.