“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This word, Remember has cropped up a few times recently. We had a sermon in chapel the other week where we remembered the Passover and we were encouraged to think theologically about remembering. To remember what God has done in Christ, to remember what God has done for us in our lives, and to remember his promises for the future – that all those who believe have been declared Children of God, co-heirs in Christ’s inheritance of eternal life won for us through his death on the cross and resurrection.
Remember that you are dust.
Dust. That dirty icky grey film which gathers in forgotten corners of our rooms, on unread books standing guard in ranks on neglected bookcases. To remember that we are dust could all to easily be to think of ourselves as insignificant and worthless, to think of ourselves as merely an annoyance to be cleaned away. But there’s another way to think of it. The reference comes from Genesis and refers to the making of Adam – that occasion when scripture paints us this image of God taking the dirt of the earth and using it to sculpt and form the shape of a human being. This human being is conceived of, designed, formed and made out of the dirt; made out of that which is most distinctly – as they used to say – creature. That is to say that we belong most properly to the realm of Creation and as such it is also to say that we are most certainly not God. We are not Angels or spiritual powers, we are made from dust – we are dust. Yet this dust which was sculpted into the form a human being was not put on a plinth to be an inanimate trophy, nor was it discarded. Instead scripture pictures the scene as profoundly intimate and significant – God himself breaths spirit into the nostrils of the figure and, just as with the animals before him, the Adam breathes his first breath and finds himself alive.
We are dust which has been given spirit, which has become alive. Far from being simply insignificant, when we remember that we are dust – we remember that we are God’s creatures and that our significance and value comes from his not leaving us as dust, but breathing into us life to live and move and have our being as the stewards and agents active in his Creation. You may have seen, as I have on more than one occasion, those pictures online which boast how the atoms and molecules which we are made up of have previously been part of many other people, of ancient creatures and from before the world was even formed. Pictures which boast that we are made of atoms which were born in the heart of ancient starts so that in a very real sense we can be proud because we are made up of stardust. And yes, the actual matter from which we are made has been through many different permutations and has a fascinating story of exactly how it has come to end up being a part of us, but we are not special or significant because we are made of stardust – we find out value in receiving life from our creator.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
We are dust. There’s no escaping that; we are physical, fleshly, bodily, human beings. We will not reach some spiritual state of enlightenment and transcend our bodies to become pure spiritual beings, nor will we ‘sublime’, as one science fiction author writes, and become some form of pure thought or information. We live as bodily creatures, and someday we each will die. We will be buried or cremated and over time the physicalities of our bodies will pass away. The atoms which make up the carbon that our bodies are based on will disperse and quite possibly end up in other people, other animals and in different places. Put simply, we will return to dust. Dust is interesting really. I don’t know the precise number off the top of my head, but the vast majority of dust is simply dead skin cells. The cells in our skin grow and die and are replaced regularly, and the dead ones are shed and form the dust. This almost unnoticeable pattern of decay happens to more than just our skin, it happens to all creation. Trees eventually wither, cliffs erode to form beaches, temples and churches become ruins, and even stars burn and pass away. It is the current state of our reality that all things fade, all things give way to the inexorable passage of time and the destructuring and disordering of entropy. We human beings are no different.
In all of history, the pattern has been fixed: humans have been born, they live and then pass back into the dust. There was this one time, though, where the pattern was broken. In Jesus we meet with the man who was born of Mary, a virgin. A man who lived with the fishermen and tax collectors whilst healing the lepers and forgiving sinners. We meet with the man who said, I Am the Way, I Am the Truth, I Am the Light of the World. In Jesus we meet the man who was betrayed with a kiss by a close friend, who was handed over from the religious elites to the authority of the state – Pontius Pilate. He stood silent while they accused him falsely of many things. His release was offered to the crowd, who screamed for his death, Crucify Him! When we meet Jesus, we see the scars of his hands and feet where the nails skewered his body to pin him to the cross. We see a man whose eyes shine defiantly with an impossible glimmer of life. He was beaten, he was pierced and crucified. When we see Jesus, we don’t see a man who survived the cross, we see one who felt the sinister embrace of death itself – who actually and truly died. First he died, and then he was deaf and buried. For the thieves who were crucified on the crosses next to him, this was the end of the story. Their bodies passed back into dust.
Jesus though, he was dead and yet three days later he was alive; he has risen! He lived, he walked and talked and ate and spent time with those he knew and was seen by crowds of people he didn’t. He ascended into heaven to be at the right hand of our Heavenly Father and on him is given the name above all names, the name at which every knee on earth and in heaven shall bow. Jesus died, and yet death couldn’t restrain him. His body did not pass back into the dust, but rather this process of decay came to an end. His dead corpse became the living human body which he, the Lord God of all time and space, still has and is now. His eternally living body has been given for us in death and resurrection as a covenant pledge of the eternal friendship of God. We who are made from dust will return to dust. But returning to dust is no longer the end. Being made of dust means that we belong entirely to the realm of the created. In Jesus, the whole of creation has been taken off of its dying and decaying basis and is shifting into an eternally live one. In Jesus we find the foundation of hope that though we are by rights insignificant, small and inconsequential, the same Creator God who desired to breathe life into us, the same Creator God who has said that he loves us and that we are his people, will someday cause this earth and this heaven to pass away. In their place there shall be a new heaven and a new earth, and our creator will make all things new, including us!
As you receive the ashes on your forehead, remember the Cross and whose you are. Remember that you are created. Remember that God has a plan. Remember that as Jesus died, we too will die. Remember that as Jesus lives, we too will live.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.