On Easter morning we will sing St Paul's words, "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." Today we begin with the first part of that antithesis, with words which echo Genesis 3, "Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return." It is too bad that the advocates of politically correct language have dropped the key word of that solemn formula, "O man." As each man woman and child is marked with ashes, we are reminded of a jarring fact. Each of us is a member of the human race and is therefore "in Adam." The address "O man" is directed simultaneously to the individual and to the entire human family. To delete it obscures that truth.
The formula is adapted from even more solemn words in Genesis 3, from that painful conversation which God held in turn with the serpent, with Eve, and with Adam just before they were banished from the garden. After He had dealt with the Serpent and with Eve, God said to Adam:
Cursed is the ground because of you,
In pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken.
for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
However you choose to read the mournful tale of Genesis 3 (as myth, or as poetry, or as a parable which echoes a terrible moment in clock-time history), we have in those words a powerful description of the human condition. Doomed to death after a lifetime of drudgery in a world where the very ground itself is cursed. This terrible predicament did not just happen at the caprice of a cruel god. No, this is the result of Adam's sin.
On Ash Wednesday we make not one but two trips to the Altar rail. The first trip reminds us again of what St Paul wrote, "For as in Adam all die." We are all, by virtue of our humanity, under that curse which sent our first parents out of the garden into a world of thorns and thistles. But the second journey to the Altar rail, when we receive the Body and Blood of our Saviour, reminds us that "even so in Christ shall all be made alive." The first trip recalls the terrible moment when, in Milton's words at the end of Paradise Lost, "They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way." But in the second journey, we are permitted to run breathlessly like the disciples to the empty tomb of Jesus of that first Easter morning.
The ashes on for foreheads remind us that we are truly "in Adam." The Body and Blood which we will receive remind us that we are "in Christ."