By Victoria Emily Jones
Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.“Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This dictum from the Ash Wednesday liturgy, taken from God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19, is the starting point for Lent. Pronounced by the priest as he or she thumbs ashes, in the shape of a cross, into the foreheads of the people, it enjoins us to think back—together as a community—to our creation from the dust of the earth, and to acknowledge that we will all one day die and return to said dust. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
In 2017 the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw commissioned an interactive art installation that visualizes this truth quite strikingly. Created by the art collective panGenerator, it is titled hash2ash: everything saved will be lost.
The installation display prompts visitors to take a selfie on their phones, and then it translates those image pixels into digital particles on a monitor. These particles drop and disperse, triggering the release of black gravel that collects in a mound at the base.
The piece was made outside any kind of religious context and is meant as a comment on vanity culture and digital impermanence—“the fear of permanently losing the digital records of our lives due to technical failures, impermanence of data storage, or simply the obsolescence of the old digital file formats” [source]. But surely it also invites reflection on the impermanence of the physical body too. To see a likeness of your face dissolve into dust in front of you . . . it makes real and vivid the fleetingness and fragility of life.
I read hash2ash as a modern-day memento mori, a reminder of death. What in earlier times was communicated symbolically through paintings of skulls, dying flowers, rotting fruit, timepieces, hourglasses, snuffed-out candles or lamp wicks, and bubbles, here is conveyed in a personal way with the aid of an everyday technology: the smartphone. Our engagement with this device is typically in the form of mindlessly scrolling, swiping, breezing through content. But panGenerator has crafted a smartphone-mediated experience that forces you to slow down and linger before something heavy, to feel your own mortality. To remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
But that’s not the end of the story. Dust is not our final state. Although we spend time in the dust heap during Lent, mourning the curse of sin and death, we move toward life, toward resurrection.
Ashes, ashes, we all rise up.
“Lent” means “springtime”—greenness, growth, flourishing. It is a call to return to God, who gathers all the scattered parts of us and makes us whole once again, animating us with his breath. An act of love. As Emily Dickinson writes, “Love is the Fellow of the Resurrection / Scooping up the Dust and chanting ‘Live’!”
That we must first die before we can live is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith, and it’s hinted at, probably unintentionally, in the hash2ash subtitle, everything saved will be lost, which recalls Jesus’s saying to his disciples in Matthew 16:24–25: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” This idea recurs throughout the Gospels, not least in the parable of the grain of wheat, which falls into the ground and only then bears fruit (John 12:24–26).
Ash Wednesday puts us in mind of our eventual physical death, but it also calls us, right now, to die to self in a figurative sense—so that we can rise with Christ.
That pile of “dust” in hash2ash, composed of all the little particles of me, so to speak, is sobering. But it’s exciting to think what God can and will do with that pile of dust!
Victoria Emily Jones is a freelance editor and a writer on Christianity and the arts, blogging at ArtandTheology.org. She serves on the board of the Eliot Society, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that promotes spiritual formation through the arts, and is a contributor to ArtWay and the Visual Commentary on Scripture, an online biblical art project spearheaded by King’s College London. Follow her on Instagram @art_and_theology, Twitter @artandtheology, or Facebook.