Dust to Dust – A Reflection
By John Houk
When we lived in a multi and diverse Church environment in Eastern Kentucky, Joan discovered opportunities to bring Churches together for some common celebration. Ash Wednesday was one such opportunity. I have memories of Protestant participants getting ashes on their foreheads for the first time. One woman said to me, with enthusiasm, “This is the first time I’ve been ashed!” She had “been ashed.” For the first time. I let that sink in.
I’m old school Catholic so “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is what being ashed has always meant to me. I don’t struggle with the newer “good news” version of being ashed, but that is not where my mind is on Ash Wednesday. My mind is on dust.
Genesis comes right out and says God made us from the dust of the earth. The name, Adam, means earth creature so they say, and my dust beginning. But ending as dust, what does that mean?
Anyone who has kept house knows dust. Are we saying that our dusting cloth contains someone else’s dust? Really? Of course, we can’t say for sure, but I know dust.
In learning how to build things in Arctic Alaska I came to know that much of the ground there was composed of dust from someplace else, mostly Siberia. We are not talking a “dusting” but feet, even yards deep dust. It’s called loess to engineers who must learn to work with it and build things on it. First, if it is frozen in place, for heaven’s sake don’t thaw it out. OK, back to dust.
So dust often comes from far away. In Alaska it comes from Siberia. In the lower U.S. it comes with the prevailing wind from Asia and sometimes from Africa and the Middle East. It seems like everything is from China lately, even the dust on your table top. Dust gets around. It is statistically probable that every surface in our home contains dust from far away places. But that’s not the end of the story. There is new dust and there is old dust; some dust is so old that it was dust when we were being created.
The more I know about dust, the more I like it. Dust floats in the air. Dust is not stuck in one place. Local dust gets mixed with dust from every place else. New dust is mixed with old dust, really old dust, Biblical dust, Roman dust, OK, Chinese dust. Dust is the ultimate equalizer; the ultimate organic unifier. I like dust.
I doubt that the well-dressed Protestant woman’s mind was on the equalizing and unifying qualities of the ashes / dust on her forehead, but maybe it was. I believe she felt part of a wider Church that she may never have felt before because it showed in her enthusiasm for being ashed. Ash Wednesday can do that for a person.
Dust to dust we say, at least we used to say. We know that’s how we began, and now we know what becoming dust can mean. Yes, it means being humble, but also it means organic oneness. Dust never means isolation or being forgotten. Whose dust is on your table, or perhaps better, whose dust is at your table? And don’t forget to get ashed.