“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I don’t think they say that on Ash Wednesday anymore and in many ways I guess the change is progressive. I do remember the first time I came across that particular statement. I was new to English speaking and there was a very tall priest in a red chasuble (I am sure it was red though usually they seem to wear purple)…he looked like a scary wizard to me standing there so aloof and severe looking with his little grey bowl and I had to go up to him, it felt like all by myself though considering I was 5 or so years old I am sure my parents would have accompanied me.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” he said, he sounded utterly forbidding, even angry. I felt “told”. I knew lent was all about thinking about how sinful we all were and how much we deserved God’s punishment and I was already feeling unworthy. But he could dismiss a little five year old girl as “dust” without even eye-contact. It shocked and frightened me. Now of course I know he was telling the truth because that is exactly what this world does to little girls. They are dust, stripped of a name and identity and incarcerated in Manus. They are dust, targets for marketing practises that clearly see them as less than boys and potentially always less than men (but pretty), or as nonentities. The patriarchal church was quite honest in reminding me that I am always and necessarily dust and to dust I shall return.
So what is dust?
I was interested some years ago when my children got into this series by Philip Pullman. He had one interpretation of the possibilities in “dust”. Going back further I remember bus-rides to Broken Hill and the willy-willies, the little spinning pillars of dust. Dust there was something that could dance. Dust is dry earth, being material, being here, belonging to this planet. We live our material lives and our bodies decay and return into the earth- rich dust, plant food, the stuff of life. The star-dust that our earth was originally made of, transformed into living, breathing, hoping, loving but transient beings.
Remember then that you are stardust and to stardust you will return.
So there is star-dust also gold-dust. We dust our cakes with sugar or cocoa for sweetness and to make them look prettier. Are we dust in any of those ways? Can I choose what I am “fine, dry, particles” of? What if I can be God-dust, little particles of a greater reality? What is the dust that is my true essence and to which I shall return?
What sort of dust I am will affect how I begin and keep my lent. If I am a meaningless entity, “dust” in the sense of useless or waste matter (like I used to think) then I should probably ignore lent and just be as hedonistic as possible, for the short time I am. A willy-willy is no good for growing things in, so it doesn’t weigh itself down with water, it simply dances and dances without care for the others it is useless to.
This I think is the path many despairing people have gone down in our first-world “sty of contentment”. There is no longer any sort of certainty or meaning to be found anywhere so we may as well eat, drink, be merry and keep our “different” people. You make yourself pretty unpopular if you ever say anything that is biased or political. Being “apolitical” means living in unexamined privilege, it is a luxury we have convinced ourselves we can finally afford. There the authentic Christian becomes dust in a different way, we may have a conscience that clings to the surface of things and makes it impossible for the luxurious escapism to be pure and gleaming. Our dust is the awkward questions we bring to our society, not “can we afford the refugees?” but “what gives us the right to even consider not taking them in?”
As Isaiah has pointed out, there are a lot of very religious people caught up in this wilful ignorance. We can all spend one more Ash Wednesday “humbling ourselves” but not noticing.
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
So it’s not just a case of giving up chocolate for a slimmer waist-line (worst luck). God is actually holding me responsible for the state of the world. This is where it would be easy to give up because it is all too big and too hard and anything grandiose I attempt is doomed to failure.
So in all honesty, I will break it down and make a lenten commitment that I hope I can actually stick to.
- In my leadership positions at work and elsewhere to consider “my” workers and be a consultative, considerate and nurturing leader who shows a lot of patience toward the children and adults I work with. This includes being more careful not to let my frustration against them turn into nasty talk about them.
- I will actually give up buying books and takeaway coffees for lent AND USE THAT MONEY for an organisation that tries to redress imbalances, particularly imbalances of race, class or gender. I will also attend at least 2 protests or send at least 2 emails (it is all too easy to make excuses)
- I won’t give into the temptation to think badly of myself and adopt a sackcloth and ashes attitude toward my failures, incapabilities and weaknesses. I will seek more constructive ways to redirect myself into a purposeful life (I have been so depressed lately but wallowing in self-hate is NOT what God asks of me)
- I will share as generously as I can with people who are in my life who can benefit from my generosity especially if I discreetly help them without them having to feel grateful or indebted. I know how that is done because I have had people do it to me. At least once a week I will contact either my great aunt or my grandmother both of whom I neglect.
I won’t do any of these things because I feel guilty, or because I am a “bad” person or because I link the way I am “dust” to worthlessness. I will do it because it is a way of empowering myself to repent from my unhappiness and be filled with life again. I will be happy at the opportunity to give these gifts to God knowing they are really appreciated. This is my light breaking. This is my ruins being rebuilt.
So publically “bragging” about my Lenten discipline, not such a good thing to do in light of the gospel? But I hope it is obvious that I am not attempting to be particularly holy or try anything too immense. I hope that by being open about the weaknesses I struggle with and my attempts to move back toward God, I will be kept honest, I will feel I have to follow through and actually do these small things.
I am dust, I am fine particles of earth I am embodied and dependent on my physical substance. I return to dust, constantly, to the small interactions and physical moments of every second of my transient embodiment here. Perhaps there is something in me, a “soul” dust also of God. My body will return to the dust of the earth, my soul yearns always toward reunification with the star-dust of eternity, of meaning, of right relationship. Omnipresent dust which calls me to return.