I walked through the 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 rich earth, a richer dust concealed.”(1)
It is helpful, I think, to be reminded that we are dust. It seems crucial to take this reminder with us as we move through life—through successes, disappointments, surprises, distractions, tragedy. For Christians, it is also a truth to help us the vast and terrible events of Holy Week. The season of Lent, the forty days in which the church prepares to encounter the events of Easter, thankfully begins with the ashes of Ash Wednesday. On this day, foreheads are marked with a bold and ashen cross of dust, recalling both our history and our future, invoking repentance, inciting stares. Marked with the Cross, we are Christ’s own: pilgrims on a journey that proclaims death and resurrection all at once. 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 one’s last 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 within world 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 precisely 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.
The world of humanity is flattened by the realities of death and sorrow. From the invitation to consume Christ’s 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 long we are gone. 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; following Christ we can proclaim it. Walking through Lent as dust and ashes bids us to see our need for God’s unchanging provision. God offers us the Cross for the journey, the communion of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, 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 Rupert Brooke poem entitled “1914.”
(2) Genesis 28:20-22.