Today is Ash Wednesday.
Today many churches, especially those higher up the candle – the Catholic end of things – will have held ashing services to mark the beginning of Lent.
I went unexpectedly to an ashing service about twelve years ago. My companions at the time had planned that we all should go and, as the occasion of our togetherness was a professional commitment, the flow of the river took me there too. I didn’t mind. I felt curious, intrigued, never having been to an ashing service.
I don’t remember much about it – the main structure of the ceremony was an Anglican eucharist I think. What I do remember vividly was the moment that makes an ashing service what it is – kneeling at the altar to receive on my brow the smudge of ashes signing the cross on my brow, accompanied by the pronouncement of the priest: “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”
“Avert!” my soul cried: “Avert! Avert! Thou shalt not pass!”
For it is not true.
There is a wonderful moment in the Chronicles of Narnia when Eustace Scrubb meets a Star. Looking at the shining being standing proudly armed and carrying a spear, Eustace observes: “In our world a star is a ball of flaming gases!”
And the Star responds: “Even in your world my son, that is not what a star is, but only what a star is made of.”
And so it is with human beings and dust.
God, in the Genesis story of creation, gives the man he has created from the dust of the earth the name “Adam”, and this is a play on words. It is like the Hebrew word for “earth” (adama), and so could be understood to signify “earthy” or “earthling”. It speaks of the substance from which Adam is formed, and says something of our origin, where our roots are.
“Eve” means “life”. A good pair – Earthy and Life – a good summary of what we are made to be.
But there’s more to it than that (I’m sure you remember the story).
The form God fashions from the dust of the earth is lifeless. It is not yet Adam. Into that inert shape God breathes – a little puff, the story says; a puff of God’s breath.
In Hebrew the word for breath (ruach) is also the word for wind, and for spirit. It is used interchangeably. So “the breath of God” in Hebrew is indistinguishable from “the spirit of God”. The Holy Spirit is the Breath of God.
That little puff God stoops and breathes into Adam infuses Adam with Life itself. It is when God breathes into him that he becomes a nephesh – a living being.
So the beautiful truth of this story, the word of life to me, is that a nephesh (which is any living being, not just a human – in the Bible an animal is also a nephesh) is created from two components: the dust of the earth from which it is formed, and the Breath of God, the Holy Spirit, which is its life.
When the priest thumbs the ash onto my forehead saying “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return”, this is a word of death; it is not true.
Only the form we see comes to an end, its dust metamorphasised into some other life form. The dust returns to the earth – but the Breath of God returns to God:
“. . . when thou takest away their breath, they die, and are turned again to their dust. When thou lettest thy breath go forth, they shall be made; and thou shalt renew the face of the earth.” (Ps 104, 1928 BCP)
I am formed from stardust, from the dust of this beautiful Earth; and when I die, the Earth will have her dust again and this form by which you knew me will be lost. But that is not my life. What made me a nephesh, a living being, is the Breath of God – that is my life, my anima, my spirit, my soul. That is the I Am in me.
I will not have this curse laid upon me, “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return”, for it is not true. Dust is not my “I Am”; even in this world that is not what a living being is, but only what it is made of. My “I Am” is the Holy Spirit, the Breath of God.
Spirit I Am, and to Spirit I shall return. And this I witness in the name of Jesus Christ.