(Consider Genesis 3:19)
“Dust you are, and to dust you will return.”
I don’t know about you, but every year as I kneel and hear these words spoken to me on Ash Wednesday, I walk back to my seat puzzling over their meaning. The wondering usually goes something like this: “I’m dust? No I’m not! I have complex emotions. I’m a husband and a father. I have bones, a circulatory system...I’m a divine image bearer! Dust is the stuff that collects underneath my bed when I forget to vacuum. Dust? Really?”
There seems to be something deep within us that resents the limitations of our creaturehood. Maybe that’s why these words come at the end of God’s heart-wrenching description of the consequences of humanity’s rebellion. After God finally finishes his litany of innocence lost in Genesis 3:14-19, he takes one more opportunity to remind his creatures exactly who they are. We can almost see him grabbing their shoulders and shaking them, wracked with grief but intent on getting his final point across. “Remember, dear creatures–you are dust” (The Hebrew here literally means “ash”). He then expels them from the Garden, with this reminder of their mortality ringing in their ears. It didn’t take long, though, for humanity’s hubris to push God’s warning from its collective memory. And our arrogant attempts at reaching beyond our creaturely limits have continued all the way from Genesis 4 until today.
Ironically, as humans have imagined newer and more creative ways to ignore our finitude, the mortality of the rest of creation has come into sharper and sharper focus. Once we start looking for ash out in the rest of creation, it’s everywhere.
It’s carried on the Santa Ana winds as they stoke some of the worst forest fires the world has ever seen.
It blows out of tailpipes and massive smoke stacks, driving dangerous climate change and settling into the lungs, brains, and hearts of our children.
It floats film-like on the top of oceans and rivers, poisoning ecosystems and collapsing food chains.
The fragility of creation is laid bare for all to see, in large part thanks to the very human arrogance that exiled us from the Garden in the first place.
Thankfully, though, ash isn’t the end of the story. For with ash comes oil. Oil not only heals and restores, but it makes the ash stick. During this Lenten season, may we have the courage to be reminded of our dustiness, and to let it stick–even as we await the fully realized reign of the Anointed One.
QUESTION TO PONDER
What can creation teach us about our own vulnerability; our own identity as creatures of dust? As we follow Christ’s journey to the cross this Lenten season, we might reflect: were there sins toward creation that weighed on his shoulders that dark Good Friday?
God of ash and oil, remind us this Lenten season of the good gift of limits. Of the relief that comes with releasing control. Of the deep and abiding truth that you are God, and we are not. Grant us the courage today to sit in our finitude, even as we wait on tiptoe for resurrection.
This is an adaptation of an article that first appeared on dojustice.crcna.org and is republished with permission.
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