Ash Wednesday held special meaning for me this Lent — not because of any particular circumstance in my life, but because of the message I preached that day. My curiosity provoked me to explore how Scripture talks about humanity as dust. Where do we get the refrain, “You are from dust and to dust you shall return”? Could such a dour message be full of grace?
I loved what I found. Adam is formed from the dirt, according to Genesis 2. In the words of Old Testament scholar John Goldingay, “God gets his hands dirty” by digging into the soil. But unlike a child making mud pies, God breathes life into Adam. We are made of the stuff of earth. But, because we are shaped by God, we are holy dirt, sacred and beloved. We may be fragile and finite humans, but we have the breath of God inside of us. And God’s breath gives us life.
Our earthiness begins as a beautiful image of our life in God. But it turns into a curse when Adam and Eve disobey God. God says to Adam in Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”Adam and all of us after him squander the God-life within us. Our sin leads to our finitude — to the guarantee that each of us will one day die. Our sin makes us frail.
God is aware of our finitude and fragility, and God doesn’t leave us stuck there. As Psalm 103 declares, “God knows our frame; God remembers we are dust.”God knows we will sin. We will choose destructive ways of being over life-giving ways of being. But God forgives us. God removes our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west. God’s steadfast love endures forever!
This twin realities of our frailty and God’s steadfast love captured my imagination this Ash Wednesday and gave me hope. Everywhere I turn I see signs of humanity’s finitude and sin, whether it’s another cancer diagnosis in the congregation or another news story of injustice or inequality in our society. My heart breaks at all the heartbreak in my tiny life sphere, let alone in the wider world. The ashes on my forehead gave me a way to express both my grief and my determination to cling to hope-filled action.
But now, weeks after the ashes were washed off, I’m once again caught up in the mundane incidences and activities of my life. Grief masks itself as an undertone of anxiety. It’s easier to ignore the pain and injustice around me, to numb it with Netflix or put it off in favor of parenting to-dos and work responsibilities.
How do I make the ashes stick? How do I stay present to the pain without being swallowed up by it? How do I remember both my fragility and our belovedness, not only this Lent but beyond it?
I suppose this is why people fast during Lent — as a way to remember, to keep coming back to our finitude. After all, fasting from food makes us hungry. Fasting from Netflix would remove my primary way to ignore the pain around me. I just pray that my congregation and I fast for the right reasons. I don’t want congregants to fast because they feel ashamed or afraid that God will punish them if they don’t. I don’t want them to fast because they feel guilty about their love of chocolate or obsession with social media. Instead, I hope we fast as a way to make space for the God who loves us. Then maybe the ashes will stick well past Easter.
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.