An Ash Wednesday meditation

We are dust, and to dust we shall return. That much is true, and yet it is not the whole truth.

We are dust. We are accounted as dust in the scales of creation and God, of the nations and the oceans. We are the dust that blows through the ravaged streets of Syria. We are the dust that settles on the lungs of the miners. We are dust, and dust in an instant might be wiped clean away. We are the dust swept under the rug. We are dust, and we get everywhere; we get all over everything. Sometimes we end up where we are not wanted. We are the dust that accumulates while we are busy doing other things. This much is true, and yet it is not the whole truth.

We are – to borrow another image, one that Isaiah liked – we are so much grass, that grows up and withers. We are like grass that withers when the breath of God blows upon it. We are the flower that fades, the rose, the lily, the daisy, the blown dandelion. We are poison ivy. We are the trees that shed their leaves. That much is true, and yet it is not the whole truth.

We grow like weeds, and if we can find our proper roots, and allow a little pruning, we may put forth green shoots and, who knows, fruit – because we share our DNA with every living thing, and we can germinate and cross-pollinate and we can share in the work of creation.

The prophet Joel says, even now, return to God, for our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Our God will not pull on her white gloves and wipe us away with pursed lips and a clucking of the tongue. We are the dust, after all, that God created with that swirl of activity back at the beginnings of time, when all creation was swept into being.

Yes: we are dust, and we share our dusty beginnings with the whole of creation: with the dirt, with the worms, with the rats and with their fleas. We share our DNA with the least living thing. We are connected and implicated in everything that happens in creation, everything that expires and becomes extinct. That is not the whole truth.

We are dust, and we share our dusty beginnings with the stars. We were born from the same singularity as the sun and the red planet and the pole star.

We are dust, and that’s ok, because we share our origins with everything that God has made. We are partners with our world, creatures of one God, and we are beloved.

Jesus says, even when you are driven to hiding in your closet, behind closed doors, buried under coats and cats, pretending the doorbell is only the ringing in your ears, even then, your Father who sees all secrets will find you out, and be gracious to you, because God remembers that creature formed from the dust, rolled between divine palms, wound up and set in motion with a push from the divine lungs, the breath of God. You are the very design and image of God, and you are beloved.

We begin our Lenten journey in ashes, and we end in the new fire of the Easter Vigil. Ashes rekindled. A friend said that he uses the lint from a tumble dryer to light the new fire at the other end of this Lent. We are dust, we are ashes, we are lint from the dryer, and we are still flammable, and capable of new fire. We are dust that is receptive, susceptible to the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, the divine fire. We are not burnt out, we ashes, we dust. We can still catch alight. We have life in us yet, if we can open our selves to the breath of God, if we can sigh away our sins, our regrets, and breathe in the love that awaits us, the peace that passes understanding.

At the end of Sunday’s gospel message, Jesus shining on the mountaintop, I said that today, we would declare that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return, and that we tell the truth. But it is not the whole truth. We know that there is more to life than the earth can contain. We have seen the mountaintop. We have glimpsed the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; and it is our light in dark times, and our joy in times of celebration.

We are dust, but we are moved, swept up by the breath of God.


About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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