On Wednesday, we observed Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. In comparison to other Christian observances, this one may strike us as the strangest. On our way to resurrection and God’s plan of making all things new, what do we need to know about frailty, dust, death and repentance? Lent, oddly, reminds us of our place in God’s larger story. Still not a fan? Hear me out.
The common refrain we hear during the imposition of ashes are the words: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Pleasant, I know, but this is on purpose. In Genesis 2:7, we read of how God formed man from the dust of the ground. We are created from dust. And if we pay attention to the places we live and work, we notice we are good at creating dust. Our bodies are constantly shedding and creating new skin. We are literally dust.
But the story doesn’t end with dust. Genesis 2:7 continues to say “the Lord God breathed into the nostrils of this man and he became a living being.” We are who we are because we carry God’s breath. The word for human or man in these verses is adam, which means dirt in Hebrew and adamah means ground or land. So God formed us from the dirt of God’s creation and gave us our uniqueness among all creation when God breathed divine breath into us.
Equipped with God’s life-giving breath, God empowers humans to have dominion over the dirt of the world. With our God-given breath, we are able to cultivate life from the dirt which sustains us and all other living creatures. But if we are honest, we are also capable these days of much more than sustaining lives. We are also capable of destroying life, too.
As we quickly see in the next two chapters of Genesis, these special creatures called humans are also capable of turning their backs on their creator and capable of destroying God’s very good creation. So, from Genesis 4 through today, we continue to deal with this tension of creativity and destruction. We see such beauty in our world. People are capable of such kindness and self-sacrifice, one to another. But people are also capable of destruction, cruelty and selfishness, too.
And before we, who were given the responsibility of divine creativity, alters God’s good work to an unrecognizable wasteland of greed and hubris that leads to destruction, we need a reminder of who we are and our place in God’s world (not our world). The jarring words “remember – you are dust” are there to save us. God created you with divine breath. You bear the resemblance of God. But you must also remember that none of us are God.
Acknowledging that we are not God is getting harder these days. No one really goes around calling themselves god. But check our behavior. How often do we as individuals or as a society consult with our creator before moving ahead with our latest project that may impact the earth, the oceans or fellow human beings? Our behavior reflects our unwillingness to accept that we are dust, that our bodies wear out and that our planet is also finite. What it does show that we are deeply interested in ourselves. We would make poor gods, at least when compared to the true God in whose likeness we are created.
And since we are created in God’s image and with God’s breath, the good news in all of these ashes is that there is deep meaning and purpose in our lives. When we acknowledge that God created us with the responsibility to take this very good creation and do something beautiful with it, well, that should both scare us and excite us!
To quote one theologian’s musings on our spectacular dustiness:
“To regard ourselves responsible for our future, responsible for the very human race itself and the very planet itself, is not arrogance but recognition of the truth. But all such human responsibility depends on one immense condition, that we never forget that we too are creatures, children of the same Majesty who formed the planet and the suns and galaxies which surround us. In that sense, created and formed, given the gift of life, we are dust. Brilliant dust? Yes. Creative, thinking dust? Yes, but still dust. For all the brilliance and creativity and thought and imagination within that dust are the shimmering traces of that divine breath within us.” -Herbert O’Driscoll, A Year of the Lord
Put a different way, we’ve been given this one brilliant and beautiful gift of a life from our creator. How will we use it? Will it reflect the intention and desires of our Lord? Will it lift up and and bless both the creator and creation as worthy investments of our time, our creativity and praise? Or will our abilities be forgotten and lost in self-adulation and even destruction?
Such questions remind me of a Switchfoot song, Live it Well, which asks the same kind of questions.