“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s what we hear today, on Ash Wednesday, as our foreheads are marked with the sign of the cross, with ashes. These ashes here in this jar come from Mary Jo and Tom’s back yard, years ago, when they burned the palm branches from our Palm Sunday service. We’ve been using them every year since.
I remember using ashes from this same jar to mark Cameron’s forehead, just like I will do to you here tonight—that was years ago now. He was a member of our church. During sharing time he would ask us to pray the same prayer every Sunday—he’d pray for people in hospitals, in prisons, people who didn’t homes, and for anyone who was stuck where they didn’t want to be. You can still hear Cameron’s phrases in other prayers during sharing time every once in a while. We call it Cameron’s prayer. To be remembered for a prayer, at a small church, full of lovely people. He died five years ago, and his body was turned ash, cremated, buried here, on this property, just on the other side of the parking lot, up the hill in the woods, in the Quaker memorial garden, among the members of the Friends Meeting who have died. I think about him when I walk through the trees, wondering about his body returned to the earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, a fate all of us will share.
We get this Ash Wednesday saying from the beginning of the Bible, from Genesis, the third chapter—God says to Eve and Adam as they stand in the garden of Eden, looking out into the rest of the world, a world where they will soon have to make a life for themselves. God says to them, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Made from the dust, from the soil, from the earth—that how the Bible starts, with God taking a clump of earth, of clay, like our red North Carolina soil, wet and sticky, and God breathes life into the lumps of earth, earthlings, human beings, enlivened with the Spirit of God. That’s how the story goes, that’s our story—all of us as made from the earth, breathed into life through the grace of God. We are fragile creatures, made from the stuff of this planet, our home, for now.
This story is about all sorts of things. The most important thing, I think, is that this story and these ashes remind us that we are earth formations, given life through the Spirit of God. Our every breath testifies to the handiwork of God, the Holy Spirit who sustains our spirits. The ashes invite us into this season of Lent, a time when we confess all the ways we have come to think that we can own our lives, that we are our own possessions, that life is a possession, that our corner of the world is our property. To confess all of this as we remind ourselves that all of life is a gift, that everything in our lives comes from God, that we have no good reason to tighten our fists around what we have, what we own.
This year, with these ashes, I think of them as a sign of belonging, a call to remember that our lives and the life of the earth are bound together, that we are made of this planet, that our bodies declare solidarity with the world around us, with the earth, with a whole biosphere. I still haven’t recovered from the fact that more than half of my body is not human. That’s the same for you too. I’m not the only weirdo here. Human cells make up only 43 percent of the body’s total cell count. We’ve got all kinds of pieces of creation living inside of us—bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea (I don’t even know what that is), all sorts of species, micro-organisms, mysteries: a whole microbiome, as the scientists call it, all coming together to make us human. Our bodies are a microcosm of the world around us. We’re bound up in the life around us, a mutual belonging.
To say that we are dust is an important reminder of our mortality. But I hear those words this year as a call to remember that we in this mess together, this planetary mess we’ve made, as people, hurting the earth. To harm the earth is a kind of self-harm. To care for the earth is a kind of self-care.
We are marked with the sign of the cross because our lives are a sign of the cross, as we offer ourselves as a prayer for resurrection, for a resurrected life for all creation: that our bodies, our lives teeming with a life not our own—that our bodies might be a prayer for redemption, a prayer for people in hospitals, for people in prisons, for the hungry and thirsty, for the desperate and lonely, for this world in need of restoration, that we might offer our breath to God, to creation, in a prayer of resurrection.