Read Genesis 18:27
It looks like this is the first occurrence of the word “ashes” in Scripture. Abraham is going back and forth with God about Sodom. He brings up ashes, not as something he sees (or hopes he doesn’t see), but as something he is. It is a statement of identity. Dust and ashes. This flies in the face of our societal bent. From the viewpoint of the 21st century’s developed world, such a statement is pathological. “No, I am gold and diamonds. God loved me and only me so much that He even died for me. I’m worth it and more. I’m ten pounds of super-special in a five pound bag.” We eat self-esteem for breakfast. We sing it in church. We build worlds around us that protect and promote our personal value. It’s more than strange to hear Abraham (the father of us all) identify himself as ashes; it’s an assault.
But think for a moment of the context. Abraham is talking to God! He is in the presence of God! Compared to God, he sees himself as nothing but dust and ashes. This is what Ash Wednesday is about. As a Christian, you tell yourself and anyone who cares to listen that you are not the biggest thing in your life. You are not the most valuable thing in your life. You are not the star, the reason, the cause, or the point of your life. You are not even close. Instead, sitting across from you in daily, sacred conversation is the Creator and Redeemer Himself. What’s even more amazing is that this God loves you, but not because you’re precious to Him apart from Him. He loves you though you truly are dust and ashes. You don’t have to prove your value to Him (or yourself or the rest of us). You do not have, nor can you produce, value (or life at all) apart from Him. You don’t have to. You never have to. No one does.
When, like Abraham, we know what we are apart from God (dust and ashes), then we really, confidently know that we can live in vital, honest, immediate, permanent, loving, conversational relationship with Him. There can’t be two gods in the same room (or universe). One of you has to acknowledge that you are not God, not even close.