Last night, Ash Wednesday, I attended a service at a local church which included the ritual of ‘imposition of ashes’ accompanied by the words “remember that you are dust” a rough cross of ash is smeared on the forehead of worshippers who come forward and stand or kneel whilst this is done. The Earth. In your face!
These words are God’s response, in Genesis 3:19, to the story of the disobedience of the first humans, falling victim to the misdirected craftiness, ( though crucially, not the evil,) of the snake. It refers back to the making of humanity from the same stuff as all other life: the Earth.
Ash Wednesday. Or perhaps for us, Carbon Wednesday. Carbon, in our environmental speech, sounds like the new poison, which has led environmentalists to be caricatured.
It’s not only a profound Biblical, but a factual truth, that like almost every other living creature on earth, we are carbon-based life-forms. Carbon we are, to carbon we return.
In places where seasonal wildfires have always been normal and expected, it is from the ashes that new life rises.
And the pictures we have seen from Australia, of just that miracle, were in my mind as the gritty black stuff was imposed “in my face.”
I did some Bible study on words for dust and earth and soil, and mud in the Old Testament. I was reminded of the myth that the Inuit people had seventeen words for snow.
The Old Testament both does (and annoyingly occasionally doesn’t ) distinguish between inert, lifeless dust, agriculturally viable soil, (which is what the name Adam means), the ground, and the land, (which is the stuff people still kill each other for). And then there’s ash, which comes into the story as a penitential thing. Dust and ashes in the Book of Job, though there, those of you either with medical knowledge or like me, an experience of eczema, might recall the healing properties for Job’s skin problems associated with coal tar, and carbon-rich medicines.
The most foolhardy thing you can ever do in Biblical study is to make a generalisation, except the valid one, that it is always a mistake to assume that a Bible motif is simply symbolic, without experiential depth and practical application.
In shaping Adam, (the human race) God transforms dust to soil, and soil to something rather special, and as the story continues, has cause to remind Mr and Mrs Soil, both that their health and fruitfulness is a gift not to be taken for granted, and that their destiny, like other creatures of the earth, includes limited life……and potential re-use.
Remember you are dust, to dust you will return.
Some Reformed Ash Wednesday liturgies have quite fairly included the concluding line
“From dust you will be raised”.
Our EcoCongregation board meeting also fell yesterday, and I was required to do some other reflection, but it did strike me that the most destructive part of the Snake’s “spiel” was the suggestion “you shall not die”.
This is the key to our dominant narrative of infinite and everlasting economic growth, accompanied by single-use wastage.
The impoverished limitation of what might be reused, re-cycled, repurposed, indeed, resanctified.
We live, for now, by the mindless and abusive haemorrhage of the very lifeblood of the Earth. And we employ the gifts of craftiness, intelligence, every conceivable skill and technology to achieve this.
We live, for now, preferring the lie of endless life to the truth of good and natural death, (our sister, as St Francis put it in his Canticle of the Sun) to which, to whom, after a good life, we should be reconciled.
And the gracious and healthy acceptance of finitude sets our outlook in perspective. The urgency of a change of course in all we do becomes the more serious, the more sacred. Denial of the limits of life emerges, with some irony, as all the more deadly.
Jesus, the Word made Flesh, did not evade death.
Jesus repurposed it.
(If my phrase “the lie of endless life” seems odd, please do follow it up: the lazy translation of “the end of the age” and related phrases as “forever”, or even of “all-the-days” as “always” reflects how drenched even our worship has become in the denial of death that leads to death. Looking to the fulfilment of the“end of the age”, rather than into a sterile infinity, amounts toa deepening of faith in the goodness of God, without being bullied by a merely philosophical faith in superlatives, which dictates, that what is more, must be God. But what is only endless is also endlessly unfulfilled . )
By contrast, by the grace of God, leaves fall…that in time, the flowers may delight the bees.
The Way of Life – and as I have written elsewhere, the Way of the Kingdom, is a circular economy, a circulation of energy, paralleled in the dance of the Trinity, illuminated for us by the Orthodox churches with the concept of ‘perichoresis‘
It is so easy – and tragic – to “spiritualise”, to detach such ideas entirely from the experienced world of daily life. Or, if the pendulum swings entirely in the other direction, to rob them of their meaning by over-literalising our reading.
One of our board members, John, also opened with a reading from Romans 8, where what struck me was the idea of Creation’s ‘bondage/slavery to decay’ .
That what we need to consider is the problem of the ‘bondage’, whilst being mindful of the goodness of decay.
Again, decay is why we’re still alive at all. Over and above our enjoyment of cheese, wine, bread and plenty of other things that delight our life and that of Jesus of Nazareth, the work done by the tiniest of fellow creatures ensures the fertile circulation not just of water.
Like death, decay is a wonder, a gift, a miracle. The single-use economy, built on the lie of everlasting resources enslaves us to an abusive relationship with good things.
So my ‘leap’ of poetic theology for today, is a prayer to view this ‘bondage/slavery’ relating to decay as we would any other abusive relationship: a travesty of something good and healthy and life-giving. Just as the single-use economy is a slavery which prevents the recycling of goodness.
Not slavery, but partnership and friendship with decay, is where we find New Life.