He Remembers that We Are Dust (Ash Wednesday)
For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These words accompany the imposition of ashes at our service this evening. We are each invited to come and be marked and reminded of what we all know; life is fragile; we are mortal. Such a word is intended that we treasure life. The Psalmist tells us that God remembers we are dust. “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” A word of both comfort and hope.
Last December a friend and colleague on a not-for-profit board I serve on died suddenly. On a Sunday he said he wasn’t feeling well. By Wednesday he was in hospital. On Thursday he learned that he was full of cancer. The following Tuesday he died. To say that it was a shock is an understatement. We all have had this sort of experience that smacks us in the face with the fragility of life. But why does it shock us so? We all know that no one gets out of here alive. We need reminding that we are dust.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College. He has made the observation that the increase in longevity has had profound impact on how we regard our mortality. His recent book A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of Human Life explores the cultural and spiritual transformations wrought by extended life expectancy. Radner published an article in the November 2016 issue of the journal First Things that is, in many respects, a summary of his larger work. His article appropriately titled Whistling Past The Grave.
Radner writes: “When we talk about the key shifts of the twentieth century—those involving politics, trade, consumption, art—we leave out what is surely the most astonishing physical change in all human history, one that has happened mostly during the last century: the doubling of the human life span in much of the world (alas, not all). In North America, this has meant an increase in longevity from forty years to eighty years.” Radner goes on to explore the impact of that shift on many areas of life. For example, only one hundred years ago, for nearly everyone it was unimaginable that women would choose to delay childbirth until their late thirties, even early forties; the same is true of today’s widespread assumption that death at sixty-five is “early.”
1. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. God remembers we are dust. This sounds like God recalls that we don’t amount to much. This remembering needs to be understood according to the Hebrew concept of “remember.” It is not a statement about our nothingness but a word of great hope.
We shall be helped to understand “remember” if we first learn the meaning of “forget”. To forget, in modern discourse, is simply to have an idea or notion slip out of the mind. To forget a person is simply no longer to have the idea of that person in one’s consciousness. But in the Hebrew bible to forget someone is much more serious: to forget someone is to annihilate that person, obliterate him, destroy him. When the Israelites cried to God not to forget them they didn’t mean, “Be sure to think of us once in a while.” They meant, “Don’t annihilate us, don’t blot us out.” It’s obvious that to forget, in Hebrew, has to do not with ideas but with living realities.
In the same manner to remember has to do not with recollecting notions but with living realities. In a word, to remember, Hebraically, is to bring a past event up into the present so that what happened back then continues to happen right now — and is therefore the operative reality of our existence. God’s remembering is the operative reality of our existence. To say God remembers isn’t to say that God is thinking of us now and then. The say God remembers isn’t something God does now and then. God is eternal in his being so his remembering that we are dust is the operative reality of our relationship with him. God knows our limitations and loves us all the same.
In God’s remembering that we are dust there is more here than the fact of our mortality. The point is that in remembering you, mortality is not a hindrance to God’s remembering you. God remembers, present tense, which means that his remembering of us transcends mortality and is the promise of future life.
Also I would invite you to consider the great liberty that is accorded us in this remembering. To remember we are dust is to confront our mortality; at the same time to know that God remembers we are dust frees us from the dread of our mortality. We are liberated to pursue life in him. I note with you that in our Lord’s teaching about acts of piety his assumption is that these acts matter. The fact that we are dust does not render any of this useless. “Whenever you pray,” Jesus said, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Note “will reward you.” To pray is to do business with God and to do God’s business. To walk in company with our Lord is to treasure up treasures in heaven.
Furthermore that God remembers we are dust liberates also from clinging to this life needlessly. Every time our health is in danger or we become ill, naturally and appropriately we will pursue the good of keeping or regaining our health. Life is a gift of God and we say “yes” to this gift by pursuing health. But are there times and places when other goods are possible? The idea that God is good, the God remembers we are dust and that God has power and intention to work out good no matter the bad leaves us open to a much wider range of hopes and expectations than the singular one of health at all costs and with any technique.
3. I was reading an Ash Wednesday reflection recently and the minister made an observation that I found helpful. He wrote, “A number of years ago, I asked a Maryland farmer why he pruned his apple trees. His response was, “to let the light in”. During Lent, we prune and simplify our lives so God’s light can come in.” I found that image of pruning’s purpose helpful. We come again to lent and consider what to put down and what to take up—a kind of pruning that lets God’s light in.
After the Psalmist speaks about the Lord’s compassion on those who fear him because God “knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust”, he puts side by side our mortality and God’s steadfast love.
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
I invite you to consider that the pruning of Lent can be thought of in the terms of the Psalmist—“and remember to do his commandments.”
One final reflection. When God comes among us in Jesus and takes on our flesh we could also say that he takes on status that we are dust. He does so to redeem us. God will not leave us there. Our status of dust is transformed in him. You see, it is the steadfast love of the Lord that is from everlasting to everlasting.
For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. Amen.