Dust thou art.
A Sermon for Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2023 at Holy Communion & Solemn Evensong
“Dust thou art.” In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Ash Wednesday has a theme, rather than a story. We are not here commemorating an event in the life of Christ or the history of the church. This is about us, here and now: Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a fast, a time of abstaining from excess in food and drink so that we can feel our need for God—a need we always have, but are rarely aware of. So the readings for today teach us how to fast well.
The best summary of what is going on today which I have found comes from the poet George Herbert: “The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now.” We have decided, as a catholic church across time and space, to dedicate the season before Easter to fasting for the sake of spiritual renewal.
But there is a story lurking in the background. This is “Ash Wednesday,” and the words which we will hear as ashes are spread in the form of a cross on our foreheads are, “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” This is a quotation from Genesis 3 (:19), the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise. When they disobeyed God, committing the first sin, they were cast away from his presence, and denied access to the Tree of Life. But “dust thou art” also casts us further back to Genesis 2, when Adam was created “from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7).
There has been disagreement about an important aspect of this story. Was man created mortal, or immortal? We say that death came into the world through sin (Romans 5:12). So if Adam had not sinned, would he have lived forever?
The best answer is “No, but.” No, human beings are not naturally immortal, even without sin. Man is dust. He is every bit as much a part of the world of growth, and change, and decay as any plant or animal, and like any plant or animal, he decays and dies. Man is mortal.
But man was also created for immortality. He is not only dust of the earth, but has the breath of God in his nostrils (Genesis 2:7). God created man “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). Man is dust, but he is also a spiritual being, created with the ability to know God and to enter into relationships which show forth the image of the Three-in-One God who is love.
How can man be mortal, and also created for immortality? The key is also in the story. In Paradise, Adam and Eve eat freely from the Tree of Life. Adam and Eve were not immortal by nature, not because of anything in themselves, but because God renewed them continually with a generous gift of life. This is what the Tree of Life means. God created human beings to receive their spiritual vitality from him, not from themselves. They were meant to live in God, and God in them.
But after they sin, God casts them out of the Garden to prevent them from eating from the Tree of Life anymore. Why? This is an act of mercy: without the Tree of Life, they will not live forever as miserable sinners, separated by pride and disobedience from their Creator, but will reach their natural end (Genesis 3:22). An end to sin is mercy.
“Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” Alienated from God by sin, we wander east of Eden until we return to the earth from which we came.
But in the inmost heart there is a longing for life. We are not only dust; we are breath, spirit, made to receive our life from God. How can we return to Paradise?
We repent. Penitence has a bad reputation, because we think that it means self-abuse, when in fact, repentance is the greatest act of self-love. We search our inward parts for anything, anything at all that causes alienation from God. Setting it aside, we ask God to again become for us the source of life, and God lifts us up out of the dust. Repentance is joyful sorrow: sorrow for the death we leave behind, joy for the life we discover.
The hope and the joy of Lent is that seeking God, we might find him. If we knock at his door, he might open. If we ask for life, he might give it. Since we return to God by way of the valley of the shadow of death, the Tree of Life must now be a cross, a tree from which it costs God dear to feed us. But its meaning is the same as the Tree of Life: since we are dust, if we are to have life, God must be the Giver.