This Ash Wednesday, I have been thinking a lot about dust, the “dust” that we are and the “dust” to which we return. A year ago today, we shared our first Eucharist together. The first symbolic act that I performed with you, though, was to take powdery black ashes from a little container and make a cross with them on your foreheads, with the familiar words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I didn’t realize on that day that I would, over the next six or seven months, stand before you again so many times with very similar ashes in my hands and proclaim, “All we go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song. Alleluia.” I could not imagine that so many of the expressive, living faces examining me with serious eyes for the first time at that Ash Wednesday service would, with closed eyes, be returned to the dust of our Meditation Garden, mixing beloved ash with dark, humid soil. Yes, remembering the somber weight of the ashes of beloved parishioners in my hands and the clinging of their ashes to my fingers, I have been thinking a lot this Ash Wednesday about dust.
“Remember that you are dust.” This phrase from Genesis, spoken to Adam and Eve after their sin had forced them from the Garden, indeed recalls our sinfulness and our mortality, tied inseparably together, yet it also carries within it hidden blessing and responsibility. The dust into which God breathed life was not, as I have often carelessly imagined it, the useless stuff collecting on the top of my refrigerator or under my bed. A study of the Hebrew words shows us that God created Adam, the “groundling,” from the “dust,” from the loose dirt, of the good, arable soil. God did not create us from heavy, sticky clay to be fired in an oven and shattered. God did not chisel us from hard, unbendable, self-sufficient rock. God did not form us from rotting peat or from shifting desert sand. God created us from loose, rich garden soil, from the soil that grows things, the soil that brings forth life when planted with seed and watered. As people of the dirt, we are one with the same soil that we work, the same soil that nourishes us with food. And it is to that same fine garden soil that we will all return. Our life as “dust” is not only impermanent and hard to hold onto. Our common life as dust ties us to the earth, to our job as caretakers of the earth, and of one another. When Cain killed his brother Abel, it was the soil that cried out in pain and indignation to God.
No wonder that Isaiah, in his vision of a restored Israel, calls us to be “a watered garden …. the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” As dust, we are not meant to float away on a sigh over our own mortality, “to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes.” Even in acknowledging our frailty and failures, we are tied in responsibility to one another and to our world: “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” says Isaiah. Like the farmer who continues to work the soil, to fertilize, to weed, to bring forth growth by the sweat of his brow, we are expected to work the ground of our world, feeding, clothing, and caring for one another, as if our lives depended on it—for they do. I wonder if, during Lent and beyond, we can remember both to work the yearning ground of our world and the yearning ground of our own souls. St. Paul gives us the tools in our lesson from 2nd Corinthians: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.
As you receive the dust of last year’s Palms on your foreheads today, think both of the Hosanna’s that turned to ash and the Hosanna’s that we will sing again in just 40 days. Remember the precious dust of loved ones who have returned to the life-giving soil. But when you think of the brevity of your own life, remember too that you are fertile soil filled with the breath of God and re-formed in Christ for a new creation. Remember that you are a “groundling” who, to borrow from St. Paul, “has nothing,” yet “possesses everything.” And go forth, blessed and strengthened by a cross of dust, for the life of the world.
 See William P. Brown, The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible (Eerdmans, 1999), 137-140.