Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dust Is What We Are

It didn't take long after the Fall for God to spell out to the earth man, Adam, and to the woman, his helper and partner, Eve, mother of all the living, the precise meaning of what it means to be human: "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) Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary traces the word "dust" to Middle or Old English dust, akin to Old High German tunst = storm; probably akin to Latin fumus = smoke. Among the possible meanings are: fine particles of matter/earth; particles into which something disintegrates; something worthless; a state of humiliation; a place of burial; the surface of the ground; and, in British use, refuse ready for collection. In his book The Eternal Year, the late contemporary theologian, Karl Rahner, observes: "Dust is the symbol of coming to nothing: it has no content, no form, no shape; it blows away, the empty, indifferent, colourless, aimless, unstable booty of senseless change, to be found everywhere and at home nowhere." How's that for triggering some insecurity and desperation in you as a human being?!

We are dust and flesh, words with which Scripture refers to our whole human person. Rahner says that "[i]t designates us precisely in our basic otherness to God, in our frailty, our weakness, our separation from God, which is manifested in sin and death."

Even a short read-through of the simple and beautiful liturgical service for today reveals that it very much assumes this reality. Yet, aware of another Scriptural reality: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us...[f]rom his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace...", Mother Church places the ashes on our foreheads today as "a sign of our mortality and penitence", but only so that they can help us to "remember that it is only by [God's] gracious gift that we are given everlasting life..."

We "dust people" have quite an agenda for the next six weeks: "self-examination and repentance;...prayer, fasting, and self-denial;...reading and meditating on God's holy Word..." I'm always struck, and made incredibly uncomfortable, by many of the items in today's Litany of Penitence which are highlighted for each of us to confess: being deaf to God's call to serve; grieving the Holy Spirit; anger at our own frustration; our failure to commend the faith that is in us; blindness to human need and suffering; indifference to injustice and cruelty; contempt toward those who differ from us (as in various Church groups, political parties, etc.); our waste and pollution.

Ash Wednesday's liturgy comforts and assures us that "[God] pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel." The Liturgy of the Word concludes with the earnest prayer "...that those things may please [God] which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to [God's] eternal joy..."

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