Today on Ash Wednesday, we are told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
At first glance, this is a humbling statement, an appropriate way to begin Lent, the season of penitence. The threats and damage of climate change remind those of us who live Western lifestyles that we certainly have a great deal to repent for.
But there is so much more to this statement than sin and repentance. There is beauty, interconnection, and dare we say even hope.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
We aren’t just any old dust: We are the very oldest dust. We are from stardust, the very same stardust as all God’s other creations. God created the universe as hydrogen atoms, which flared forth from one dense moment. Over time, those atoms coalesced into gas and dust, which can form interstellar nebulae. The energy of those nebulae serve as the furnaces that forged everything else – starting with stars and planets, but also including you, me, the laptop I’m writing this on, the snack you’re eating as you read, and even our thoughts themselves and the music that’s on in the background. All energy and all matter comes from stardust. American Indians had it right: The stars really are our ancestors.
So we, like everything else in existence, are dust. That means that we are deeply connected and related to everything else — to other humans, to animals, to plants, to rocks, to water, to earth systems, to the cosmos itself. We are also the one known part of creation that God chose to give a conscience, a special capacity to reflect, which means that we have a special duty to care for the rest of creation during our time among it.
We come from dust, and it is also to the earth’s dust that we shall return. That means that God’s earth was here before us, and it will be here after us. We don’t get to pretend it belongs to us, or that it is here for us to destroy and use up. But we do get to explore it. We get to enjoy it. And we are called to protect it from ourselves. When we fail in that duty, we are called once more, to repent and to try again.
So today, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. And as you remember, rejoice, and act.
Pictured: The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, via NASA.