"Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return"
The Ash Wednesday ritual is one of the more memorable in the liturgical year. To some extent this is because it only happens once a year, but I think it's mainly because the moment is so dramatic — the apparently doom-laden exhortation, the marking with ashes, publicly bearing the mark for the rest of the day. Particularly when we where children, these things captured our imagination.
I think the attraction was partly that they were a reminder of death. We grew up in a world in which people — even people of religious faith — didn't like to talk about death. As children we need to come to some kind of terms with death; that's why at a certain age we are fascinated by graveyards, and skeletons, and stories involving ghosts or coffins. Ash Wednesday was one day on which we could engage with the symbolism of death outside the context of stories. We could see even adults acknowledging death, though if they still didn't talk about it very much.
It's ironic. If death means decay and finality and extinction, then Ash Wednesday isn't about dying at all. It's about living.
Let's go back to the dust and ashes. The familiar liturgical exhortation given at the top of this commentary is scriptural; it's from Genesis 3:19. As Adam and Eve are being expelled from the Garden of Eden, Yahweh says to Adam:
Accursed be the soil because of you! Painfully will you get your food from it as long as you live. It will yield you brambles and thistles, as you eat the produce of the land. By the sweat of your face will you earn your food, until you return to the ground, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return.
The "dust you are" language here is a reference to the creation of Adam, in Genesis 2:7:
Yahweh God shaped man from the soil of the ground and blew the breath of life into his nostrils, and man became a living being.
The Hebrew text uses the same word in both of these passages — adama, meaning ground, clay, earth. It's translated as "soil" in Genesis 3:19 and as "dust" in Genesis 2:7, but in the original it's the same word. (Of course, it's also the root of "Adam".)
In other words, the "dust" to which Adam will return is the "soil of the ground" from which he is formed in the first place. And the expulsion passage is about his relationship to the soil; because of his fall, the soil itself is "accursed".
As if to emphasise that this passage is not about death, Genesis 3:19 is immediately followed by this:
The man named his wife 'Eve' because she was the mother of all those who live.
(The Hebrew name hawwa, Eve, is related to the Hebrew word hay, living.)
This is a bit jarring. Here is Yahweh, castigating the man and the woman, and expelling them from paradise. The narrative is interrupted to tell us that the woman gets a name indicating a connection with life. Then the expulsion narrative continues. Why?
Some scholars suggest that this is actually a mistake; due to a scribe's error, a sentence has been transposed from later on in the work, and placed here. And, for all I know, they're right.
But I don't think the mistake would have survived if it contradicted the Israelite's understanding of this passage. I think that it underlines it.
A reminder of how he must live…
Yahweh's purpose is not to threaten Adam with death, but to remind him how he must live. He is one with the rest of creation — he is soil, he is earth — and therefore in abusing creation he damages himself. We are made of the same stuff as the earth, and our fates are bound together.
In Genesis 2:15, God placed Adam in the paradise he had created "to cultivate and take care of it"; to be the steward of creation. And the symbolic sin which stands for the Fall is not an assault on God directly, but on creation; Adam and Eve abuse creation by eating the fruit of a tree from which they should not eat.
The message is that we cannot diminish or destroy the rest of creation, and remain unaffected ourselves; creation is a whole of which we are a part. God's warning of pain, and toil, and difficulty, and enmity is not some kind of sentence imposed by a vengeful judge for breaking arbitrary rules; it is what Adam and Eve have done to themselves by their failure in stewardship.
Does this take us too far from the traditional Ash Wednesday theme? I don't think so. If salvation from sin is the theme of Lent, then let's put the matter into a creational framework. Paul tells us that, in Jesus, God redeems not just humanity but the whole of creation. And our sinfulness is tied to the salvation of creation because of our failure to live our true calling; to be stewards of God's creation. Redemption from sin involves redemption of the whole of Creation. If we are redeemed to finally take care of the earth as we should, then the earth also is redeemed.
So, when we are told that we are dust, and that we will return to dust, we are not being reminded that we are going to die, but rather how we need to live. And this emphasis on a change of life appears also in the alternative exhortation which the church suggests for use when distributing ashes:
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.
It's also scriptural; it's from Mark 1:15. These are, in fact, the earliest words attributed to Jesus in the earliest of the four gospels. Far from being a stern admonition, they are an amazing promise. The full verse is:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.
So these two exhortations neatly bracket the redemption story. At the Fall, Adam is reminded that "you are dust, and unto dust you shall return"; he cannot live by pretending that he is God, rather than a part of God's creation. And, when Redemption is at hand, Jesus calls all to "be faithful to the gospel". In both cases we are being called to life; to the fullness of the life which God has destined for us.
What are your thoughts on this commentary? You can contribute to the discussion in our forum.