“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Is that a threat, or a promise?
As the psalmist reminds us, life is fleeting: “Our days are like the grass; we flourish like a flower of the field; when the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more.” We are mortal, and we do well to remember that this is so. God remembers that we are dust, but we too easily forget. We try to make ourselves invulnerable, and so close ourselves off from this precious life and the love that gives it enduring meaning. In trying to forget that we die, we forget to truly live as well.
“But” and this is a big “but,” “the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever on those who fear him, and his righteousness on children’s children; on those who keep his covenant and remember his commandments and do them.” We are mortal, but death is not a threat because we participate in God’s goodness forever – however hard that may be for us to grasp or imagine. We can begin to enjoy that goodness by observing the covenant, attending to our relationship with God, here and now. We don’t have to wait until we die.
Returning to the dust is not a threat. It is a promise. As Carl Sagan once observed, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” The dust to which we return, signified by the ashes we receive today, is a reminder of our deep connection to everything that is. The dust to which we return, in which we are made, is stardust. We think of “returning to the dust” as the threat of death. But maybe it is the promise of reunion, of homecoming, of realizing that we are at home in the universe. God’s goodness rests upon us forever and we can live in the joy of that realization today.
But we forget that we are stardust. God’s doesn’t, but we do. We experience ourselves as separate from the rest of the world, sometimes even estranged. It is this sense of estrangement that the Bible speaks of as sin. It is an ontological condition, not a moral failing. Sin is the condition of being separate from the world – “more than,” or “less than,” maybe, but not “part of.” It is when we lose our sense of participation in the whole of life as an integral part of creation that we are in bondage to sin. This is the necessary precondition for “sins” – the moral failings that arise when we see ourselves as unrelated to the rest of the world.
The many “sins” that we will confess tonight are really expressions of the condition of sin, the result of our forgetting that we are stardust. We are only capable of exploiting people whom we see as fundamentally separate from us. We can only be indifferent to injustice and cruelty when its victims are “those people,” not included in our sense of “we.” It is only when we become alienated from the fundamental elements of life that sustain our existence that we become capable of wasting and polluting the planet.
When we forget that we are dust, we treat others like “dirt.”
Lent is an invitation to remember that we are stardust, to renew our sense of deep connection with the whole of reality; to rediscover the goodness of God and our participation in that goodness. It is an invitation to become whole again.
I don’t know how we came to frame this invitation as being about renunciation. “What are you giving up for Lent?” That is the question we tend to ask. Anthony De Mello tells a story that helps to reframe this question:
There was once an ascetic who lived a celibate life and made it his life's mission to fight against sex in himself and others. In due course, he died. And his disciple, who could not stand the shock, died a little after him. When the disciple reached the other world he couldn't believe what he saw: there was his beloved Master with the most extraordinarily beautiful woman seated on his lap!
His sense of shock faded when it occurred to him that his Master was being rewarded for his sexual abstinence on earth. He went up to him and said, "Beloved Master, now I know that God is just, for you are being rewarded in heaven for your austerities on earth."
The Master seemed annoyed. "Idiot!" he said, "This isn't heaven and I'm not being rewarded - she's being punished."
De Mello offers the following commentary on this story: “When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten; when the belt fits, the waist is forgotten; when all things are in harmony, the ego is forgotten. Of what use, then, are your austerities?”
Renunciation only binds us more tightly to what we are trying to avoid. Cultivate insight, understanding, detachment, and compassion instead, and whatever needs to be let go will drop away of its own dead weight. You will not need to "give it up." You will not even notice "it" anymore.
The question is not “What are you giving up for Lent?” but rather “What helps you to remember that you are dust?” This is the point of our covenant with God, the end for which keeping the commandments is simply a means: living in harmony with the rest of the world, secure in our identity as part of the whole. Lent is not about giving things up, but about looking deeply at the fears and desires that shape our life, becoming willing to let go those things that obstruct the energy of love. It isn’t about renunciation or repression, but about integration.
The Master in De Mello’s parable tried to repress his sexual energy rather than integrating it into the whole of his life. It became split off, and ultimately came to dominate his perception of reality, such that death was a threat and eternity a punishment. He forgot that he is dust, and that sexuality was just another dimension of life that needs to be given its proper place. It became something that separated him from others, rather than connecting him to others and to the generative energy of the cosmos.
It seems to me that this gets to the heart of Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel lesson. We can use spiritual practices to separate us from others, to divide us into good and bad, and to cut us off from the energy of divine love: that is practicing our piety to be seen by others. Our reward is a big ego, a reputation for holiness that sets us apart. Yet, these same practices of prayer, fasting, and generosity can be a means of remembering that we are dust, fostering that connection which is true holiness – realizing our identity as part of the whole of God’s creation. Our reward then is heavenly treasure: participation in the goodness of God that lasts forever, and that can be experienced today, here and now.
What helps you to remember that you are stardust? What deepens your connection to God and to other people and to the creation that sustains our common life? Lent is a time to engage these questions anew. Not because returning to dust is a threat, but because it holds the promise of homecoming and wholeness: the treasure that is our heart’s deepest desire.