On Ash Wednesday, we receive a reminder of our mortality: we came from dust, and to dust we shall return. The passage from Matthew 6 that we always read on Ash Wednesday is a tough one for me as a social change worker. The idea that my “reward will be great in heaven” is not what I want to hear when I’m trying to be a co-worker with God here and now. I want to see good results of our shared labors. I confess it is a spiritual struggle for me to connect with next-worldly transcendence. Heaven might be great, but what I know about is Earth --- God’s dusty Earth.
Most of us see the idea of returning to dust as a drag. Dust isn’t too glamorous to the average person. But, dust gets a bad rap. I’d like to make a case for why God’s dusty Earth, here and now, is under-rated.
First, dust connects us to the cosmos. From the beginning of the universe to today, when stars explode, their dust scatters far and wide. Some of it gets caught in the gravitational pull of our planet. In the spinning of our planet, star dust becomes part of Earth and all that is part of Earth. As earthlings, we are literally made of star dust.
Second, dust connects us to each other. Those who have gone before us, including Jesus, return to dust and become part of the Earth again. So our bodies are not only connected to our ancestors the way we usually think about it – through passing forward of genetic code, but also through the elements of the earth which they returned to upon their death. This includes Jesus, a fellow earthling, a fellow human. The idea of Jesus’ continued bodily legacy on Earth even informs some people’s Eucharistic theology. And, dust doesn’t just connect us to other people. God loves calling diversity out of the dust of the Earth – a diversity of living species. We are intimately related to plants and other creatures in ways we have barely begun to grasp. Even the ones we don’t particularly understand or care for – the bat, the Gila monster, the mosquito…
Lastly, we are connected through dust to everything we co-create with God. That includes our built environment, and our stuff. It also includes less tangible things that we give life to: cultures, languages, music, poetry, stories, our economy, our political systems, and yes, even religions. In Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, he highlights this principle that we are both creatures and co-creators in an interconnected world; he calls this idea integral ecology.
Today, we will impose ashes on your forehead, and you will hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Hold those words close to your heart. Know that Jesus, too, shared this dusty Earth with you, and has returned to dust before you. Like Jesus, you are called to listen for God’s inspiration and to co-create diversity out of dust. Dust is important, and our creature-ly, earthly existence has more cosmic, global, and local significance than we all might realize.