Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
What an extraordinary sentence. What an unreal thing for one person to say to another. We could probably spend the rest of the day unpacking that sentence. We could write a book together about what it might mean, about its implications. In the interests of time, however, I’m not going to do that. Rather, I’d like to wonder with you about three of the words in that sentence, three words that are particularly “popping” for me this evening. Those three words are:
First, Dust. When you listen to scientists who have studied and explored the mysteries of creation really deeply, it is amazing how much they sound like theologians. When the folks who are studying the very beginnings of our universe, the first seconds after the Big Bang, for instance, are asked what existed before the universe began, they tell us the very same thing that Saint Augustine told us some 1600 years ago:
There was no “before.” When the universe began, so did time.
Similarly, those who study the elements that make up our bodies often sound a lot like poets or musicians or the authors of the Bible. A few weeks ago, during the first night of our film series, Reel Theology, we watched the Chilean documentary, Nostalgia for the Light. In it, we heard from one astronomer about how the carbon in our bones, in our hands, is identical to the carbon that is found in the most distant of stars.
That astronomer was saying the same thing as Joni Mitchell. Remember her song Woodstock? In it, she sings, “We are stardust / Billion year old carbon.” We are made of the same stuff as the universe, we are integral to the universe, we came from dust and we shall go back to it. The astronomer was saying the same thing as the author of Genesis 3:19 when he or she writes, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” When the Book of Common Prayer quotes Genesis, it adds but one word:
Two, Remember. Phoebe and I used to live in a house that was built in 1910. We loved its many esoteric and whimsical elements, the many things about it that real estate agents call “character”: the boarded up old coal chute in the back, the double hung windows, the glorious mid-century gas stove. One of the house’s character elements was a small nook immediately to your left when you walked in the house. Whether it was intended as a cloakroom or a mudroom, I don’t know, but that’s what we used it for: our shoes and coats waited there. When you stood in the nook there you could look through an archway and see the stairs that took you to the second floor. The archway was covered in drywall.
One day, Phoebe and I had a contractor at the house. And he looked at the archway and explained that, way back when the house was first built, the archway would not have been covered with drywall (of course not, drywall wasn’t invented until partway through the last century) and nor would it have been covered with anything else – not with plaster, not with tile, not with wallpaper. It would just have been a wood post with a loose pin hinge at the top and the bottom, allowing the post’s removal.
The post was removable, the contractor explained, in order to allow a coffin to make the turn and go upstairs.
The design of the house was predicated on the assumption that people died at home, on the assumption that dying and death were integral to life, that these things were part of the rhythm of life.
What a change in a century. I was in my thirties when I first saw a dead body, a fact that I suspect would stagger our ancestors. By and large, today, we hide away death, we work really hard to forget. We send people to special facilities in order to die (although the hospice movement is doing its best to change that, to allow people to die at home.) And we deny the time of dying. I read an interview with a hospice chaplain recently in which he pointed out – and this is one of those things that is completely obvious when you hear it said out loud but that, somehow, had never occurred to me before – that when people post photos of the loved ones at a funeral reception, they virtually never post photos of the beloved’s last weeks or days. They virtually never post photos from the wheelchair or the hospice bed. It is as thought that time did not exist.
We live in a time of willful, deliberate forgetting. But Ash Wednesday says: Remember.
Three, You. Ash Wednesday is about you. It isn’t about someone else. It’s about you
Dust is about you. Remembering is about you. Notwithstanding our radical efforts to stave off death (if you have spent any time at all in a hospital, you will almost assuredly have witnessed heroic and invasive measures applied to a dying person – another practice that would likely have flabbergasted our ancestors). And notwithstanding our post-mortem efforts to stave off decay (think of embalming and the cryogenic freezing of corpses and concrete-lined coffins) you and I can say with absolute certainty that dust is our future, that death is our future. Today, we are naming not just the reality of death as an abstraction. We are naming the reality of our own deaths.
Maybe that is horrifying. And maybe it is beautiful.
High school biology class taught us that human beings are the top of the food chain. And that is half right. The other half is that we are part of the food chain, that we will feed other creatures, that we will make other life possible. Sooner or later, we will help something else to grow. Sooner or later (well, way later) the carbon in our bones will return to the stars. Wouldn’t that be wondrous? To be part of a star, to be sending forth light?
Maybe the integration of our bone’s carbon into future stars of what we mean when, in the Creed, we speak of the resurrection of the body. Now, don’t misunderstand me: I believe in heaven, I believe that you and I keep on participating in life after our deaths, that we keep on participating in love, that we keep on participating in God. I believe that death is not the end. And I also believe that there is a kind of miracle in the reality that everything that you and I are made of will soon enough be part of someone or something else.
That is a kind of immortality.
When we speak of the Resurrection of the Body, in the Creed, many of us make the sign of the Cross. Today is the one day of the church year on which that cross is visible to others, on which it is painted in ash on our foreheads. Today is the day when the cross is visible on you.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.