Today I shall remind people that they will die. It is a curious and perhaps shocking element of the Church’s witness that on Ash Wednesday we are reminded viscerally of our mortality. Not only in words, but with the touch and mark of ash, we recognise that our constituent parts add up to very little. Our bodies change and decay. This life is not forever and time will undo us as it undoes everyone.
Christians bear this stamp of mortality in a way that is both provocative and hopeful. Through Lent and into Holy Week we follow in the footsteps of someone whose life seemed little more than dust. Born long ago in a distant province of the Roman Empire; regarded as illegitimate; a Rabbi who didn’t come through the normal route of family connection and privilege, but out of a carpenter’s workshop. Despite a brief ministry that attracted crowds and controversy, love and fear, Jesus of Nazareth died as a criminal in the most humiliating of executions.
In the poem Dust, Elizabeth Jennings begins with the same basic reminder that is the message of Ash Wednesday: ‘We are made of dust’. But this is never the end of our story. ‘Blown to the back of the earth, Stormed at, broken, defiled’ we have both a ‘living mind’ and spirit, and are met by a grace that goes to the end of the earth. We are dust, yet this dust is:
A place for visions, a hopeElizabeth Jennings, Dust in ‘Collected Poems’ 1986 Carcanet Press Ltd.
That reaches beyond the stars,
Conjures and pauses the seas,
Dust discovers our own
Proud, torn destinies.
Yes, we are dust to the bone.
In a similar way, reflecting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s participation in the Bradford Declaration against the Nazification of the German Church, signed by German Christian pastors working in England in 1933, the poet Diane Pacitti writes: “out of dust a new world can be formed”. The Christian conviction, expressed at every baptism and on every Ash Wednesday, is not a denial of mortality. We name the reality of death more often than we might imagine – just think of the marriage service. It is simply that in following Jesus Christ we believe that death can become something else. That dust can be the basic thing in which new life is written, born and liberated.
As the pandemic lingers and war erupts in Europe, dust still has its part to play. However far humanity thinks it has come, the basic terms of our existence contain recurring themes. The horror of war haunts us with ever more terrifying weapons, and something akin to Medieval plague has kept us in quarantine and ended millions of lives. As Job found after all his adversity, destruction, losses and sickness, sometimes we need to sit in the dust before things can change. Avoiding or denying the dust risks an unhinged response to the realities of life – a denial of our four score years and ten. It might take a brave priest to ash the forehead of Vladimir Putin and say: ‘remember you are but dust and unto dust you shall return’. However, perhaps only a reminder of this reality can stay the hand of someone who appears bent on terrible destruction. Today people will fast and pray for peace – may their prayers be answered.
When they saw him (Job) from a distance, they did not recognise him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.Job 2: 12-13