When I studied at the Protestant Seminary of Charles University in Prague, for my first two years every day to and from school I walked past the Prague New Jewish Cemetery. Through one of the side gates I could easily see the simple gravestone of Franz Kafka and his family. And just as I was learning Hebrew; above the main gate I was able to read the large Hebrew letters, a stark and powerful reminder, which read: 'APHAR 'ATTAH W'EL 'APHAR TASHUB. “You are dust and to dust you will return!” (Genesis 3:19b That was the first Hebrew sentence I read.)
Ash Wednesday is often misunderstood. Ash Wednesday’s primary focus is not sinfulness or misery. Ashes are not a metaphor for dirtiness of any kind. Dust or ash is a powerful biblical metaphor of our shared human mortality, and therefore it is a call to repentance (knowing our proper place).
And just as the Ancient Greeks had their stories of the Phoenix who is born again from ashes, Jewish and Christian believers should hear the powerful message of the legendary, archetypal (larger than life) sufferer Job: “I know one thing, My redeemer lives, and at the end, will stand up for dust.” (Job 19:25)
I have several dozen English translations and all translate the words imprecisely as “standing up on the Earth” which is probably influenced by the Septuagint (ancient Greek translation). However, 'APHAR is clearly “dust” not “Earth” and only the Jewish Publication Society translates correctly.
On Ash Wednesday we mark our foreheads with ash crosses. It is a doubly powerful statement. The cross was the gallows for terrorists and seditionists, and ash was a symbol of mortality. The Christian protest (“pro-test” meant originally “giving witness for”) transformed the cross as well as the ash/dust into the hope for resurrection.
Ash Wednesday is our phoenix day. We mark ourselves with ashes, thereby taking seriously both our mortality and our penitence in the hope of being reborn into the new flame.