I’ve always been a little turned off by one of the two traditional sayings used during the distribution of ashes: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” It has, at first glance, seemed like quite a “downer” and a depressing sort of reflection. On the one hand, it makes sense that an expression and reminder of penance on the first day of the Season of Lent might have a depressing, or at least somber, quality. Yet on the other hand, a second look at this expression does indeed cause us to remember a deeply significant truth about our existence and humanity. We are dust, as Genesis 2:7 explains, because God formed humanity from the “dust of the earth.” This has some radical implications for how we understand ourselves and our relationship to the rest of creation.
As the second creation account expresses clearly, we are ha-adamah (“from the earth”). We are not something apart from the rest of creation or above the rest of creation or, in some particularly physiological or biological sense, any different from the rest of creation. As human beings we share the same elements and minerals as the stars and seas and lions and birds; we are made up of the very dust of the earth as the rest all of God’s creation.
Perhaps this Lent, amid these times of heightened awareness of the ecological crises of our age, we might make a concerted effort to be more aware of our intrinsic relationship to the rest of the created order. It can begin today as we mark ourselves with a sign of penance and recall that we are part of God’s creation and will return to the earth someday after our earthly lives have ended.
Maybe we could even shape our penitential practices to reflect a particularly attentive stance to the concerns of the rest of creation. Perhaps what we “give up” or “take on,” if this our tradition, might be aimed at doing precisely what this saying during the distribution of ashes beckons us to recall: remembering that we are earth and that to the earth we will return. What will do and how will we think in the meantime?