Dust to Dust – Ash Wednesday

“[Y]ou are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
-Genesis 3:19

“We are made of starstuff.”
-Carl Sagan


As Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped, “the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” It’s hard to go a day without being reminded of this truth. And it’s inescapable – as Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminded us in The Gulag Archipelago, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” If only it were as simple as identifying the evil as “out there” or as someone else, perhaps we could capture it and eradicate it and live happily ever after without being confronted with daily reminders of our own fallibility and brokenness.

But it’s not that simple. Nor is this a new revelation. As the Apostle Paul perceived long ago, “[S]in came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.”

In the Biblical cosmogony, we are all Adam in the story of creation: made perfect but willingly living contrariwise. “We are made of starstuff,” as Sagan said in the classic series Cosmos, waxing poetic about the universe becoming self-aware via human sentience; and yet, as the biblical author of Genesis recognized, we are also mere “dust, and to dust [we] shall return.” Created in the image of the Creator, we have chosen to become “futile in [our] thinking” such that our “senseless minds were darkened.” And “the wages of sin is death.” As Job cried, “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return.”

As the Apostle Paul states, however, while humanity stands in the role of Adam in the Biblical cosmogony, there is a new Adam that came into the world – “at the right time,” according to Paul – and through that “one man’s act of righteousness” there is once again available “life for all.” And, according to the Gospels, this new Adam broke the cycle of sin and death, such that there is a new way to be a human (cue the Switchfoot song….) – a way that roots out that part of each of us that is evil and broken, a way that enables us to be “the better angels of our nature,” a way that enables us to escape the nihilism accompanying the reality that we are mere dust in order that we might rise above that mundane state in order to obtain “life abundantly.”

But “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Again, this seems empirically demonstrable, given that we so often are either on the giving or receiving end of abuses and afflictions, despite living in the most advanced time humankind has ever witnessed with so much to be grateful for and so little to complain about (for most of us, anyway). Life is available, but we experience death – we choose death – by virtue of the cycle that humankind, each and every one of us, is stuck in.

There is a way out, however. Which brings me to Ash Wednesday. As the minister was performing the imposition of ashes this afternoon, he exhorted each recipient with the very first words Jesus of Nazareth is recorded as having said when he began his earthly ministry 2,000 years ago: “Repent, and believe in the good news.”

Repent. Which is not to say, feel sorry for the bad things you’ve done. Rather, it is to say, give up your wrongheaded way of living. More simply, it means, stop choosing death. Repentance is a call to perform a 180′ turn – we’re headed in the wrong direction and we have to turn back to find life. And we must choose to do so, every day, because our innate auto-pilot is charting the wrong course.

Believe in the good news. Which is not to say, subscribe to a set of propositions with which you agree in your head. Rather, it is a call to abandon the nihilism that is easy to give into as we go about our daily lives and pick up the bruises and bumps along the way. It is a call to hope that there is a better way, one that has been made accessible by virtue of “one man’s righteousness.” And it is a call to act out this hope through the choices that we must make every day.

We are dust. But we need not return thereto. Repent, and believe in the good news.

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