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The Blessing of Dust -- Psalm 103 (Ash Wednesday)




Every year as we enter the Season of Lent, we gather on Ash Wednesday, with its call to reflection and repentance – an invitation to a fresh start. We pray together, and we come forward and someone takes ashes, and draws them on our forehead in the shape of a cross, and says these words:

Remember from dust you have come, and to dust you will return.

Dust. “Remember dust.” I don’t think I’ve ever given dust much thought at all – until this year of re-envisioning everything we do. I get the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday – how ashes signify for us repentance – a turning from harmful and unhealthy ways – the end of those things that need to go, marked in the sign of the cross, with the hope and assurance of resurrection.


But why then say this?


Remember from dust you have come, and to dust you will return.


I had the sense that this blessing – this blessing of dust – was scriptural, but I couldn’t have told you where it comes from in the Bible. I thought it might be from a Psalm, and there is an echo there. But when I went to look, I found it first there in Genesis – in the very beginning – and then I kept going, and what I found is that the dust of us is all over Scripture.


Dust is there in the very beginning.

In the creation story in Genesis 1, God creates everything that is – and on the 3rd day – God parts the waters so that the dry ground appears. In the creation story in Genesis 2, it gets even more intimate. God makes the earth, and streams come up to water it, and God reaches down and takes the dust of the ground, and shapes the human, and breathes life into us.


When things go awry, God tells the humans that they will now live off the land, reminding them, “For dust you are, and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 2:7) The dust of us, forever connected to the dust of the earth. And to Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, God says, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” (Gen. 3:19) Our dust is everywhere, connected to everything.


As the story unfolds, as a people, we walk some dusty paths –

· into slavery in Egypt, and then back out again – into freedom – by God’s liberating hand

· then, into 40 years of wilderness wandering through the dust – on the way to a land of promise.

· We’re taken over dusty roads into exile – far from home – scattered – like dust – and then we stumble back a living remnant – life pulsing persistently in the dust of us.


The prophets talk of dust – the dust we make of our lives – when systems of oppression grind, and those things we cling to crumble. The prophets talk of God raising us up from the dust: “God raises up the poor from the dust; God lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are God’s.” (1 Samuel 2:8)


Dust is there in the Gospels as well. In one of the healing stories, Jesus encounters a man born blind– and reaches down and takes some dust – spits into it and makes mud that Jesus then salves onto the blind man’s eyes – “Go and wash” – and Scripture says that the man went and washed and came home seeing. Dust – in Jesus’ hands – an instrument of our healing.


The Apostle Paul pulls all this together when he talks of Resurrection – he reminds us that we are made in the image of the one who was made from the dust of the earth. And. And. In Jesus Christ, we are made into the image of Christ – bearing the likeness and the life of Christ in these jars of clay. (1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 4:7-12)


The dust of us is all over Scripture. Dust is from whence we came – it is the stuff of us. Dust connects us forever to the earth and all creation – to the soil and loam of the earth. Dust is what we can make of our lives and of the world around us, the rubble of the lives we live. And even then, out of the dust, God can free us – and heal us – and raise us to new life.


And we come to this Psalm – and there it is – dust – right at the heart of it. At the heart of this Psalm: God remembers. God remembers how we are formed. God remembers that we are made of dust.


And that tender remembrance – at the heart of this Psalm – is surrounded by grace. God knows that we are dust, that our days like the grass. But from everlasting to everlasting, God’s love is with God’s children. Again and again, this Psalm reverberates: The steadfast love of God endures forever --

God forgives our sin;

heals our hurt;

pulls our lives up out of the pit;

meets our need;

and crowns us with love and compassion.


As high as the heavens are above the soil of the earth, so great is God’s love for us – as far as the east is from the west, and the north from the south, so far has God removed our sin.


On Ash Wednesday, we say to each other:

Remember from dust you have come, and to dust you will return.


What this Psalm tells us is that God remembers.

God remembers we are dust,

and from everlasting to everlasting, God’s love abides with us.

God never stops loving us.


A rabbinic teaching says that “each of us should have two pockets.” “In one should be the message: I am dust and ash. And in the other should be written, “For me, the universe was made.”[1]


Remember from dust you have come, and to dust you will return.


Remember: From that beginning, and beyond that return,

God’s steadfast love endures forever.


During this Lenten season, we are embracing the theme: “Blessing for the Journey.” Lent is a journey. Over dusty roads – we travel with Jesus toward the cross. We travel with Jesus listening and learning – as he makes his way through the whole of life to Holy Week – and the Last Supper – and Gethsemane – and the Cross – and beyond the cross, all the way Resurrection.


This Lent, we’ll think of how that journey is a way of blessing.


Blessing – infuses the world with good. When we speak words of blessing, we impart good (think, the opposite of cursing). When we embody blessing, we live lives that infuse the world with good.


As we begin this journey, on this Ash Wednesday, I invite us to spend some time – this evening – this week – this Lent – thinking about this Blessing of Dust.

How is God infusing the world with good in the dust of us?


We might start by grounding ourselves in this sense of deep connection to the Earth and all creation. Then we might think some about the dust we are making of the Earth – the actual Earth in climate emergency – and the world around us – the world we inhabit – the systems we prop up – the dust we make of our own lives and our world – the hurt and the harm that we have made. We might want to lament and to grieve – and in connection with God and each other – and all creation – we might want to change.


This past week, I stumbled on a poem entitled “Blessing the Dust.” As I’m preparing for Lent, I’m reading books of blessing, and there it was in Jan Richardson’s book “Circle of Grace.” She writes of the dust and ash of Ash Wednesday, and the heart of what she says is that what matters most is what God can do with that dust. She says it like this:


did you not know

what the Holy One

can do with dust?

...

This is the moment

we ask for the blessing

that lives within

the ancient ashes,

that makes its home

inside the soil of

this sacred earth.


So let us be marked

not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

not for shame.

Let us be marked

not for false humility

or for thinking

we are less

than we are


but for claiming

what God can do

within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff

of which the world

is made

and the stars that blaze

in our bones

and the galaxies that spiral

inside the smudge

we bear.[2]


Remember, from dust you come, and to dust you shall return.


Remember, because God does, and God’s steadfast love endures forever.


Joan Chittister says it like this:

“The God who made us what we are

knows what we long to be

and waits with infinite patience as we become what we can.”[3]



[1] See Joan Chittister, The Rule of St Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1992, 2010), p. 113. [2] The poem “Blessing the Dust” is ©Jan Richardson, janrichardson.com, used with permission as granted for religious and educational use in Circle of Grace (Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015), and with gratitude for the grace and generosity of that permission. [3] Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2009), Kindle ed., loc. 703


© 2021 Scott Clark

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