Ashes and Dust

On laying down the burden of mystery

L.D. Burnett
3 min readMar 2, 2022


Photo by Justin W on Unsplash

I have turned into a once-a-year churchgoer.

Last summer I did attend church a handful of times — masked, socially distanced, sitting in the back of a congregation in which everyone was required to wear masks on orders of the bishop, in which congregational singing was banned. Then came Delta, then Omicron, and I stayed home — not only because I was wary of Covid, but because I was weary of attending church at all, especially by myself.

But even with family, as I was during Christmas, as I am now, I am not much for church attendance, particularly around the holidays. Every barely observant Christian can usually manage to muster up the fortitude to show up at Christmas or Easter. Not me. I don’t like to attend church alone, but I also can’t stand crowds. If I know there will be ample hymn singing — hymns, not choruses, and all the verses, please! — I will occasionally compel myself to attend a service on one of the major Christian feast days. But it has literally been decades since I have showed up for both Christmas and Easter in the same liturgical year.

The only day of the year on which you can reliably find me at church is this day, Ash Wednesday. It is the one day of the liturgical year when no one celebrates mysteries or expects miracles. Incarnation, resurrection, transfiguration — mysteries and miracles. Even Good Friday holds fast to the mysterious work of atonement: not how it works, but simply that it works, that it is the work of the cross.

There is nothing mysterious about Ash Wednesday. There is nothing miraculous about it. There is nothing hopeful about it.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This is not a message that sends one’s mind heavenward, but earthward — below ground, even. Dust and rot, death and decay, in all their brute stolidity: they are yours, mortal; you are theirs. Doctrinal dances about what does or doesn’t happen to bread and wine, with bread and wine, through bread and wine are forgotten on this day.

No mystery troubles us on this day; we all know what ashes are.

On this day, and only on this day, the erratic orbit of my single life of faith and doubt passes through the plane of the Church’s regular round of time. For one day, this starry messenger and that ship of souls draw side by side and look out at the same cold sky. Then off I wander, sometimes lost and sometimes found, sometimes working in the vineyard and sometimes shirking the task, sometimes hoping and sometimes despairing, bearing on my forehead a trace of the one transformation I can count on: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

What a relief to lay down the burden of mystery, the labor of hope, the conviction of things unseen. Lay down your weary soul today and rest from belief, from believing.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

I will go to church for this.



L.D. Burnett

Writer and historian from / in California’s Great Central Valley. Book, “Western Civilization: The History of an American Idea,” under contract w/ UNC Press.