Ash Wednesday: remember that you are dust

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

Potent words, used during the ashing ritual in a few minutes.  Words that toll like a bell.  I wonder how they resonate in your imagination?

I will explore today a few of the resonances.  But before I do, let me repeat that what I hope to explore is how the theme of being dust captures your imagination.  Not all that is true catches fire and works on our minds.  But it is only what works on our imagination that develops the leverage to change our lives.  So, as I speak, I invite you to engage not only or mainly with logic or an appreciation of theology.  Listen as a poet, listen to what speaks to your imagination.

So, dust… Perhaps what comes to mind first, is the funeral service.  When we commit a body to the ground, or indeed these days to the crematorium, we say “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.  It is a reminder of God’s ominous promise to Adam, after the first sin:

“Because you have l have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you…
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    out of which you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”

This an acknowledgement that human life is brief, laborious, full of suffering, and fragile.  We have been reminded of this recently, as we have lost much-loved members of our church family – lost them suddenly, with little or no warning.  That we are dust might be a reminder to us to seize the day.  A reminder that we are small creatures, and our time in the sun will be brief.  But, as St Paul wrote in our Epistle: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.”

However, we are not made of dust because we have sinned.  We are dust, because earth was God’s chosen raw material.  Let’s go further back in Genesis, to before the Fall, to the second creation story in chapter 2.  You are probably well aware that there are two creation stories in the book of Genesis.  Personally, I much prefer the second, which is much older.  It presents us with an artisan God, a potter who works with His hands; and who improvises as He goes along, improving and perfecting.  In this second story (Gen. 2:7): “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

And then, later in the chapter, God realised that His first attempt was not quite right.  “The Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”  So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field, and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man…”  And so on – what I want to highlight is that the animals and birds are also made from dust.

That we are dust has, therefore, a rather wonderful side.  In the most fundamental sense, we are in solidarity with the rest of creation.  We can add a scientific twist to this.  When speaking to children, I often tell them that they are made out of stardust, and this is not mere whimsy.  The human body is about 99% composed of six elements – oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus.  I find it a subject for the utmost wonder that my own flesh is built up out of elements that were first created within the white-hot heat of a nuclear explosion, in the very heart of a star.  Created billions of years ago, and in circulation ever since, across the extraordinary distances that make up the universe.  And just recently, within a time that on a galactic scale is the mere blink of an eye, this matter has been gathered and organised into… me.  And just so with you, and with the chair on which you sit, and the trees outside the windows, and the birds in the trees.  That we are dust puts us in material solidarity with the whole or creation.

And then, let us not pass over that wonderful conjunction: “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”  God’s breath, which stands in the Hebrew imagination for God’s own life.  We are dust, but animated dust.  Dust that dreams, and reasons, and loves.  As Hamlet expresses it: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

That we are dust – but inspired with the very breath of God – captures the unspeakable nobility of the human soul, and also its tragedy.

Tragedy: because, of course, we sin.  We fail.  We forget.  We betray.  And this, too, is a resonance that is very present to us now, at the beginning of Lent.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” is also a reminder that before God we stand dressed in sackcloth and ashes – in filthy rags, in which we would be ashamed to present ourselves, were it not for our assurance of grace.  But we do come – because we are invited, and because we trust in the saving work of Christ, in His cross and resurrection.

And this assurance of grace enables us to look the truth in the face.  The truth, by which we are healed.  There is nothing more dangerous than a person who cannot recognise and love their own shadow side.  Denying your own sin does not deal with it; you are not protected from your shadow, but become its victim.  Such a person acts out his darkness just as much as any of us, but must needs justify himself, narrate himself as the hero if his own story, present a lie as true, seek power over others lest they let the cat out of the bag.  A person who cannot own up to being dressed in dust and ashes, ashes and sackcloth, can have no true relationship, no true love.

So there you are – a few soundings into this profound truth: you are dust, and to dust you will return.  I asked you at the beginning to consider which has most imaginative resonance for you, and I return to that question.  Perhaps it is that your life is brief, laborious and full of suffering.  Perhaps, that you are made of stardust – that the dust of your bones is the common matter of all creation, and puts you in solidarity with all that God had made.  Perhaps, it is that you are dust that dreams, and reasons, and loves – the amazing paradox of being human.  Or perhaps, you feel simply unfit – aware that you have no fit garment in which to appear before the Lord your God, only sackcloth and ashes.

If any of these is for you, then let it sink into your imagination.  God’s will for you this Lent is not some additional religious practice.  It is quite easy to become absorbed by the religion of Lent – the Lent book, the Lent group, the giving up or the taking up.  All these things are good, but only if these things are doorways, not if they become walls.  If they allow you to enter through, so they enrich your conversation with God, but not if they become the main thing in themselves. The purpose of Lent is your transformation, and the most potent vehicle for transformation is your own imagination, opened by prayer to the work of the Holy Spirit. 

I believe that God has a dream for your life.  He dreams of a heart that is entirely open, like His own.  Open so that you love and care for those entrusted to you; open, like God’s own heart, to be broken by the sufferings of the world.  He dreams of hands that grasp onto nothing in this transient world, but are open: generous hands; hands that care for the good things of the world, enjoy their beauty, but do not try to seize them.

That, perhaps, is how God imagines you.  But what about you?  So: imagine your life, transfigured; imagine your dust, inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Imagine: Who could you be, in God’s grace?