"Three Benefits of Remembering 'You are Dust and to Dust You Shall Return'" (Lent 1)

Lent 1, Year C, February 14, 2016
The Rev. Lupton P. Abshire

    This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, St. Luke's Church introduced a new ministry (for us, at least) to the Fort Collins community: "Ashes to Go."  At 7:00 am and then during the lunch hour, we sent out ten, trained lay ministers, led by Fr. Greg, to the Transit Center, and then to Old Town Square, to provide ashes, prayers and a listening heart to any and all who the ministers encountered.  

    In total, they faithfully engaged ninety-nine of our Fort Collins neighbors. In addition, both The Coloradoan and the Loveland Reporter-Herald covered the story. Meanwhile, back at the church many parishioners participated in the three Ash Wednesday services.

    "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."  In contemporary parlance, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." These are the words said as ashes (from the burnt palms of Palm Sunday) are imposed in the form of a cross on the foreheads of those who participate in this ancient ritual, dating back at least to the sixth century.  But what are we moderns to make of this?

    Actually, there are three benefits that can be obtained by remembering that you and I are dust, and to dust we shall return.

    Benefit #1: We are at home on earth, because we are from the ground. According to Genesis, God formed the first human, Adam, from the ground; in other words, from the earth. And when you think about it, it's obvious that the human body is an integrated, amalgamation of minerals, water, air and warmth--just like the earth itself!

    Why is this important for us to remember? Because more than any culture or society before, we are alienated from the earth, which is why we have a global, ecological crisis. The reason why so many of us cherish living in Colorado is we have such splendid access to nature. When we get back into nature we have a sense of revitalization and, more to the point, "at-homeness." We feel at-home because at some deep level we are remembering that we are not only on the earth, but "in-earthed."

    The words for the imposition of ashes come from Genesis where God tells Adam and Eve, "Out of the ground you were taken and so to it you will return." God reiterates, "You are dust and to it you shall return." For Adam and Eve this was something of a "downer" because it represented a consequence of humanity's departure for the rarified Garden of Eden, but for us modern, high-tech types, who live so removed from the natural earth, this remembering can be quite an "upper"!

    Benefit #2: Time is precious. The Ash Wednesday liturgy includes the recitation of Psalm 103. Here we find the following verses: "(God) remembers we are dust. Our days are like grass; we flourish like a flower of the field; when the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more." We are confronted with our mortality. As mortals, we have a beginning and an end, and therefore time is precious: don't waste it!

    You have heard it said, "Live each day as though it were your last." I remember when I was a kid. My family would go to the beach every summer where there was an amusement park. My very indulgent grandmother would give my cousin and me $5.00 each to spend on the games (a huge amount for the mid-1960s!). I'd idly feed dimes into the pinball machines, not really caring much how I was playing--until the very last dime. Man, that last game; every ball, every move, every moment counted!

    "So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom." -- Psalm 90:12

    Benefit #3: Raising the question: Are we more than this? The words used for the Ashes to Go ministry elaborate on the traditional phrase by adding the following: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return; and you are precious in God's sight. This is consistent with Psalm 103. Right after acknowledging the ephemeral natural of life on earth, the Psalmist continues, "Nonetheless, the steadfast love of the Lord is everlasting to everlasting on those who revere God." This is because the human being, according to Genesis, is infused from the start with God's Spirit: "...then the Lord God formed Adam from the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and Adam became a living being. Moreover, as the Letter of James puts it, "God yearns jealously over the spirit which God has made to dwell in us."  

    So, we are earth and we are spirit; a marvelous synthesis. God's Spirit is both creative and purposeful. Thus, as spiritual beings we are not here for nothing; we have a higher, divine purpose!

    In conclusion--since we can't impose ashes every day of Lent--here is a simple way to maintain a three-fold valuation of remembering we are dust and to dust we shall return. Picture an equilateral triangle...on the right side put "EARTH"; left side "SPIRIT"; and on the bottom "TIME."


    May this be for you a Lenten aide-memoire. Behold what you are and remember yourself! AMEN+

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