Ash Wednesday: What God Can Do with Dust

Image: 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

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

—from The Terrible, Marvelous Dust
The Painted Prayerbook, February 2015

Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust? When I wrote these words as part of an Ash Wednesday blessing a few years ago, I could not have imagined how much I would need those words for myself, and how soon. Gary died later that year, just as the season of Advent was beginning. In the devastation, the question I had posed in that Ash Wednesday blessing would return to me, coming both to challenge and console. Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?

We are entering the season that begins with a smudge. That smudge is a testimony to what survives. It is a witness to what abides when everything seems lost. It is a sign that what we know and love may, for a time, be reduced to dust, but it does not disappear. We belong to the God who well knows what to do with dust, who sees the dust as a place to dream anew, who creates from it again and again.

Life will continually lay us bare, sometimes with astonishing severity. In the midst of this, the season of Lent invites us to see what is most elemental in us, what endures: the love that creates and animates, the love that cannot be destroyed, the love that is most basic to who we are. This season inspires us to ask where this love will lead us, what it will create in and through us, what God will do with it in both our brokenness and our joy.

Here at The Painted Prayerbook, we have traveled through Ash Wednesday and Lent ten times. As Lent approaches once again, I have gathered up an armful of reflections I’ve written here for Ash Wednesday over the past decade. I offer them in blessing and in hope, that in the season that lies ahead of us, we will allow God to create us anew.

Ash Wednesday: A Blessing in the Ashes
Ash Wednesday: The Terrible, Marvelous Dust
Ash Wednesday: The Hands That Hold the Ashes
Day 1/Ash Wednesday: Rend Your Heart
The Memory of Ashes
Upon the Ashes
The Artful Ashes
Ash Wednesday, Almost

FOR A BROKEN HEART: If Valentine’s Day is difficult for you or someone you know, I invite you to visit A Blessing for the Brokenhearted.

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.

9 Responses to “Ash Wednesday: What God Can Do with Dust”

  1. Emily Blair Stribling Says:

    I just want you to know how many times your words have turned my pain and sorry and joy and hope into a life giving voice in my heart…you are amazing…I am an Episcopal priest and so often have quoted you that I have found myself saying…”as my friend Jan Richardson put it…” I met you once when I was teaching Preaching and Creative Writing at Wesley Seminary in Washington Dc…there is no way you would remember me, but I have never forgotten you…just thank you, thank you, thank you for your witness in words and on canvas!

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Emily, thank you for the beautiful gift of your words as we prepare to cross into Lent! It’s lovely to hear from you. I remember that time at Wesley with fondness and gratitude, and am glad our paths crossed there.

      I pray that Lent holds many graces for you in its unfolding. I send many blessings for you and yours.

  2. Susanna Says:

    As I mourn the very sudden passing a dear friend and companion in faith (flu), your words hit me as truth, hard truth for sure, truth nonetheless. I will hold them close for a bit here as I acknowledge that her love for this church (and for me, her minister and pastor) continues even if without her. Thank you. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Susanna, I am so very sorry about the sudden passing of your dear friend. I wish you many blessings in your mourning, and I pray that the presence of love will continue to make itself known amid the deep sorrow.

      Thank you for your words. Deep peace to you as Lent unfolds.

  3. Amy Camp Says:

    I met you at the Presbyterian Women’s Gathering in Orlando 2012…
    I’m a Presbyterian Pastor in St. Augustine, FL. You preached the most amazing sermon on the Visitation! My soul hungers and thirsts for words of Blessing… so thankful for your creative, life-giving/ healing/whole-making ministry!❤️

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Amy, thank you so much! It was such a blessing to be part of the Presbyterian Women’s Gathering that year, and I’m glad we got to cross paths there. I wish you and your congregation many blessings as Lent unfolds!

  4. Sue Peterson Says:

    Dear Jan,
    I so appreciate your writing and sharing of blessings for difficult times. There are so many who are going through these times now, or still reflecting on our mortality. Your gift of expression and poetry is a comfort…like a warm blanket surrounding us.

    Sue Peterson

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Sue, thank you so much for your lovely words; I am grateful for your thoughtfulness. May Lent hold many graces for you and yours. Blessings to you!

  5. Sister Dorothy Moore Says:

    Jan,how blessed I am to read and reflect on your reflections——-
    Thank you and may you continue to be so inspired by our gracious God.

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