Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return. Not.

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.


Amy B said...

I've never heard this objection to Ash Wednesday before, and it takes me aback. But it is good to be taken aback now and then, isn't it?

On first blush, I do not object to being reminded of the same curse that was laid on Adam, because I still have felt and perpetuated the effects of that curse in my life. And yet, you are so right, dust is NOT my ultimate destiny. Life is - Resurrection Life.

So I guess I see it as a BOTH/AND - my current body will return to dust, but my life will go on and a new glorious body will be given.

Can I be tedious and post a whole passage from Scripture that makes the point better than I?
1 Corinthians 15:

"35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”;[e] the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall[f] also bear the image of the man of heaven."

Rebecca said...

Oh, Yes! A thousand TIMES "Yes"!

Julie B. said...

Wonderful. Thank you Ember. Smiles ("avert! avert!") and tears... xxoo

Ember said...

Hi ladies -

Yes, Amy - sorry, I thought I'd made it clear in my post that I saw it to be a both/and; perhaps I didn't exress myself well enough (does happen sometimes!!) :0D

My problem is that saying to someone "Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return" does not express the both and. It leaves us with a dangling and.

Thank you for reminding us of the scripture passages about resurrection. They are so apt here! Perhaps I could add one more?

(Galatians 2:20) "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

That's why it is not true to say that I am dust and to dust I shall return. Only this body dies, and I am not my body.

Or as it is put in Colossians 3:3 - "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God."

God bless your day, dears!


Anonymous said...


I see it as part of a greater whole; Ash Wednesday (or rather, for us Marounites, Ash Monday) is only one part of the entire Passiontide season that puting it simply (there are several pre-lenten traditions that prepare us stil further that I'll not worry with for the sake of my argument) ) commence here. We are reminded of the Ruach part of the equation on Easter Sunday, and still more profoundly, reminded of it a week later on Divine Mercy Sunday. One taking umbridge at the stress on our mortality that is expressed on the Ash Days needs to glance down the line to what is to come; our Lord's passion, death, burial and ressurection, god's ocean of mercy, followed by Christ's Assention forty days after His rising and pentecost after this. this is merely one chapter in the book. the whole is divided into parts to allow us to focus upon each and grow accustomed to each, thus giving us a greater, more profound sense of this self same whole.

Just a few thoughts, 'tsall,

May our heavenly Father bless and keep you, dear soul,


Pilgrim said...

Thank you for sharing these thoughts. They are helpful.

Ember said...

Hi friends - thanks for your thoughts! Waving! xx

Rapunzel said...

You write this like you think dust is a bad thing.
Ash Wednesday, in context, has always been one of my favorite parts of Catholic religious practice. Very profound to me. Very opening to the soul.

Perhaps one day they'll change it, have the priest draw an ashen "E" on our foreheads and intone "EGO thou art..." which would also give us something useful to contemplate.

Ember said...

:0) I do like dust. I am happy to be in the dust and with the dust. I know my body is made of dust - but it does not define me. x

San said...

Beautiful words! Benedict and I did go to an Ash Wednesday Service, since we are at the catholic end of things!! I'd always interpreted it to mean that the body returns to the earth and decays but naturally the soul lives on for eternity. I guess it is a way of highlighting the sombre nature of the lentern season as a reminder of all the Lord did for us on that calvary road.

I'm still reading simple living and road of blessing. In fact I was so impressed with road of blessing that I purchased a copy for a friend of mine.

San xx

Ember said...

:0) Glad you're enjoying the books, San x

squareD said...

Just found your blog, wonderful. About 'ashing', your heartfelt 'I am spirit' is the right conclusion...but in context, at the beginning of Lent, it makes sense: it is spoken to the old man, the first Adam: and it marks the beginning of the journey to Jersualem and the Cross...and on! My Am. Indian friends who keep lent identify its 40 days with Jesus' fast in the wilderness as well--the two, the dryness, and the grief and fear with which we went to his death, in a strange way prepare us for our Resurrection; 'those who are Christs have crucified the flesh' etc, Galatians. So I love your blog and the links to elsewhere--midlands!--and this is just to explain, not at all to correct, ha. Love and Courage...Charlie

Ember said...

:0) Thanks, Charlie!

Yes, here in England also we identify the days of Lent with Christ's 40 days in the wilderness - in fact I'm writing a book about that very thing right now, to be out in time for Lent next year.

Maybe I should explain that my rather winding Christian path means that I was brought up in the Church of England, but was a Roman Catholic for a decade or so before I found my way into the Methodist Church where I was ordained as a minister. So one way and another I became very familiar with the theology of the liturgical year!!
I see why they do this, and why they attach that form of words - but I feel a profound visceral objection to it. There is no balancing 'Thou art Spirit, thou art life, thou art redeemed to life abundant and eternal' spoken over us on Easter Day - just the 'dust thou art' of the ashes. I know the rationale, but I cannot permit it entry to my soul.

Nice to see you again! :0)