By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3:19)
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”.
Depending on who you ask, there are many responses to this phrase which is ubiquitous on this first day of the Lenten season. For some, it is a sober reminder of their mortality. For others, it is a reminder of the wages of sin. Still for others, and I fall in this camp, it is a hopeful reminder of the circular nature of our lives.
In the dust we find our beginning. God, seeing all that She has made, moves through the garden examining the flora, fauna, and all manor of beast. It is good. One piece is missing. All of this is good, but She is in search of the very good. She reaches down and here I imagine Her like a child with play-doh, bending, stretching, molding the form of the dirt into its perfect shape. There it is, the human made from hummus, the adam made from adamah. The dirt man. It lies there, motionless. A lump of clay. The world’s largest dust bunny. Here lies humanity, with all the potential in the world. To nurture, to steward, to care, and to love. But also to tear down, to destroy, to fear, and to insult. This is our beginning, waiting for the breath of life to enter us and make us whatever fate might have us to be.
In the dust we find our end. After the years have passed… with any luck there have been a good many years, filled with love, laughter, community, music, sex, food, play, and meaningful work. Though for far too many, those years are filled with heartbreak, abuse, loss, hunger, tears, mourning, and loneliness. For the vast majority, the years have held a combination of the two categories interspersed with moments of boredom, drudgery, and mindlessness. For some the years are far too few. “Tragic” is the word we use in those cases. Some live well into old age, and yet we still hate to see them go. In all cases, the body breathes its last, returns the breath of God to its source, and begins its journey home. Oh, we don’t like to think about this part, the decay, the entropy, the dis-integration. But this part of the journey too. When done well, we give the earth back that which it can then use to be the foundation for new life. No, it won’t be us, per se, but it will be our gift to earth, a deposit into the bank from which we have made so many withdraws. We feed the worm and the microbe who nourish the soil and make space for the new thing that will be formed from the soil, waiting for the breath of life.
The symmetry is beautiful.
The pronouncement made in Genesis 3 is one of judgment. The first people have sinned and in response, God tells them of the one inescapable truth of life: life is hard. There is toil and labor of all sorts and in the end you return to the ground which may have given you some sustenance, but more frequently gave you a sore back and bleeding fingers. You’ll have to live your days with the knowledge that your end will come. That’s hard. Yet even in this first pronouncement of divine justice, God sneaks in this little piece of grace: The dust was your beginning, the dust will be your end. Your body is finite, subject to the whims of the seasons. And yet in that finitude, you will be part of the infinite cycle of life, death, and rebirth. From today’s dust may come tomorrow’s flower. Buried in it may be the seed which gives nourishment to the next generation of things that are called good. Or even very good.
So embrace it. You are dust, marvelous, living, breathing, dancing, working, playing Spirit-filled dust. A transport for the breath of God until It goes home. It is a glorious thing, not to be wasted.