Ash Wednesday: The Terrible, Marvelous Dust

Ash Wedesday CrossImage: Ash Wednesday Cross © Jan Richardson

Readings for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17;
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Let me hear joy and gladness.
–Psalm 51.8

It is a strange anointing, this cross that comes to mark us as Lent begins. Ashes, dust, dirt: the stuff we walk upon, that we sweep away, that we work to get rid of, now comes to remind us who we are, where we are from, where we are bound.

How terrible. And how marvelous, that God should feel so tender toward the dust as to create us from it, and return us to it, breathing through us all the while. Even after releasing us from the blessed dust at the last, God continues to breathe us toward whatever it is we are becoming.

Ash Wednesday hits close to home once again. My husband’s ashes remain in the keeping of my brother, waiting in a beautiful wooden box that Scott has built for them. This spring we will bury the ashes on the family farm where Gary and I were married not so long ago. And we will breathe, and we will bless the earth from which we have come, and we will give thanks for the astonishing gift that passed too briefly among us but whose love, tenacious as ever, goes with us still.

This is a blessing I wrote for Ash Wednesday a couple of years ago and want to share with you as the day approaches again. I would also love to share the coming season with you on the new online retreat I’m offering for Lent. If you haven’t already signed up for the Beloved Lenten Retreat, you’ll find info about it below.

Blessing the Dust
A Blessing for Ash Wednesday

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

–Jan Richardson

Previous posts: I have a number of reflections and blessings for Ash Wednesday; to visit these, begin with last year’s post at Ash Wednesday: The Hands that Hold the Ashes.

For a broken heart: If Valentine’s Day is a difficult day for you or someone you know, I invite you to visit A Blessing for the Brokenhearted.

An invitation into Lent…

During Lent, my creative energies will be going toward a new online retreat that I’ll be offering for the season. I would love to share this journey with you! Intertwining reflection, art, music, and community, the retreat is designed as a space of elegant simplicity that you can enter from wherever you are, in the way that works best for you. You don’t need to show up at a particular place or time in order to join in the retreat.

I sometimes hear from folks who say, “I’d love to do this, but I don’t have time for a retreat!” I completely get that! So I have especially designed this retreat so that you can engage as much or as little as you wish. Rather than being one more thing to add to your Lenten schedule, this retreat weaves easily and simply through your days.

For more info and to register, please visit our overview page at Online Lenten Retreat. In addition to the individual rate, we have group rates available for those who want to share the retreat together near or far. You can even give the Lenten retreat as a gift! If you have questions about the retreat, or concerns about things that you think might hinder you from sharing in the journey, be sure to check out our FAQ page (you’ll find a link on the overview page). The Beloved Retreat is new for 2015.

Using Jan’s artwork…
To use the image “Ash Wednesday Cross,” please visit this page at (This is also available as an art print. After clicking over to the image’s page on the Jan Richardson Images site, just scroll down to the “Purchase as an Art Print” section.) Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!

Using Jan’s words…
For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson.” For other uses, visit Copyright Permissions.

8 Responses to “Ash Wednesday: The Terrible, Marvelous Dust”

  1. Carol Westphal Says:

    I so appreciate your sense of God’s tenderness towards our dust, and of God’s breathing through our dust and beyond “toward whatever it is we are becoming.” Thank you!

  2. Laura Says:

    Oh Jan… I have been reading and loving your blog, your art, your blessings for several years now. Your thoughtful words always seem to speak something I need to hear.

    My reaction to this blessing caught me off guard. As I read “Do you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” I burst into unexpected tears. I’ve been feeling “dustier” than I realized recently, and so needed this reminder. Amen, and thank you for continuing to share so much with us.

  3. Kate Says:

    thank you
    the Ash Wednesday prayer in particular touches the heart
    you are a blessing!

  4. Lanny Lancaster Says:

    “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?”–Thanks for the reminder, Jan! I grew up around farms, with a grandmother that had the greenest thumb I’ve ever seen. Yes, I’ve seen what the Holy One can do with dust, including the dust I dwell in. Nothing short of miracle. Blessings to you this Holy Season!

  5. Bonnie Odiorne Says:

    Thank you for reminding me once again that the “smut” smudged on our foreheads, entering pores, capillaries, skin, becoming a part of us, that once again as the blessing breathes over us, thatnash is not the shadow, but that which survived the burning, as did star stuff that we are, every molecule. We were made in God’s image, and it was good , it is good, as we live into God’s likeness.

  6. Staci Lee Says:

    Such a beautiful poem. Thank you.

  7. john y Says:

    thank you

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