Dust & Glory
'Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall
return'. As the words were spoken over me a thumb
firmly smeared an oily mixture of ash and dirt on my forehead, making a sign of the cross. It was Ash Wednesday and I had been to church. On the way home from the service I stopped for some chips. The young shop assistant looked curiously at me several times before her face suddenly lit up with recognition. 'Oh, you've been to church!' she exclaimed. My forehead! I had forgotten. That morning at school she had learned about Ash Wednesday – what ashing is, how it is done and why Christians do it. Like many ancient faith communities Christians use the ritual action of smearing or covering with dust and ashes as to visibly express some core beliefs about human life and faith.
As I left with my chips I caught my reflection in the shop window. It was a very large smudge.
What am I called to remember under this strange sign?
Dust reminds me of my origins. The name of the first human being in the bible, Adam, comes from Adamah, 'earth'. I am formed from the dust of the earth. But we now know what the psalmist did not, that the dust of earthly life is a gift of the entire universe. Every atom in my body was forged in the explosive furnaces of the farthest stars. This humbles me. But humility is not self negation. True humility creates a space for wonder. I can learn from the rabbi who always carried two pieces of paper in his pockets. One told him he was dust and ashes. The other told him that, for him, the whole universe was made.
Dust reminds me of my mortality. What began as dust will return to dust. Like the grass of the fields and flowers in my garden, my life is a brief, passing thing. It may be that our perennial capacity for messing up; our misguided priorities; our presumptions and assumptions about who we are, all lie in an unwillingness to live with this truth. This reminder brings me down to earth.
Covering with dust was an ancient way of expressing penitence and sorrow for sin. So under this sign of dust I acknowledge my waywardness and willfulness. I commit myself afresh to self-examination of life, motives, values and priorities. I repent of my sins.
But having done all this I remain dust. What may I hope for? Who makes anything of dust? Only God. 'He knows …. he remembers that we are but dust', says the psalmist. But this does not seem to frustrate God. Quite the reverse. We inspire him it seems! After all he chose dust to be the prime ingredient for his crowning work in creation – a creature who bears his image. Shaped out of barren ground, the first creature of dust became a living being when God breathed into his nostrils (Gen 2.7).
So here I am, a dust creature, yet alive in the very breath of God's own being. My life is not my own. It is given to me – a gift of the most personal and intimate kind.
Dust creature I may be then, but I am part of something much greater. An improbable story of life, wonder and mystery stirs in me. It is renewed in me with every breath I take. So I am restless dust. I am dust that prays and hopes. I am dust with dreams of glory, of a life that is not my own and that I have barely begun to imagine.
So I will remember I am a creature of the earth. But I will also attend to what I find written in there in the dust of my nature. They are words of love, of life, of transformation. Dust I may be, but I am desired dust. Improbably, wonderfully, I am dust with a destiny.
Find a dusty surface and write a prayer with your finger in the dust.
(And if you were to return later and find God has written a reply there what might it be?)
'Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
For he knows of what we are made;
he remembers that we are but dust.
Our days are but as grass;
for as soon as the wind goes over it, it is gone,
and its place shall know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the Lord is from of old
and endures for ever on those who fear him.
from Ps 103.1&14-18
Daily readings and short accessible reflections from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day for individuals and groups. Or a resource for reflection and prayer at other times.
Dust that dreams
‘If you are looking for a companion for your journey through Lent or at other times, you can do no better than this book. Packed with gentle, rich and sustaining wisdom it really will provide deep nourishment as you journey onwards’.
Paula Gooder, Theologian, teacher and writer.
- extract from Wednesday, Week 1