When I became bishop, I found in the house chapel a casket. Inside the casket were relics of several saints. Some of these were actually bones, one or two a few inches long. They claimed to be the bones of saints of many centuries ago. Recently, I thought it would be good to take these out of the dried paper in which they were wrapped and wrap them instead in cloth. Someone helped me to do this. You had to handle the bones carefully. They were dry and brittle, even crumbly. You had to be careful that they did not turn to dust. And my helper remarked, how true it is that we are dust and unto dust we shall return.
I wonder how many millions all over the world are having their foreheads marked with ash today, and are hearing the words, ‘Remember you are dust and unto dust you will return’: words of God to man after the first sin.
‘There is a time to be born and a time to die,’ says the book of Ecclesiastes (3:2), and again speaking of the other animals as well as ourselves: ‘all go to one place; all are from the dust and all turn to dust again’ (3:20). So it is. ‘I repent in dust and ashes’ (Job 42:6) are Job’s last words. Today’s ashes are a sign of our smallness, the shortness of our life. A sign of our desire to repent, to come right with God. ‘Now is the acceptable time.’
But let’s take this on. You may remember how a couple of years ago a Westminster MP had been to Mass on Ash Wednesday and received the ashes on her forehead. Then she went straight to a Committee Meeting in the House of Commons, still with the ashes very visible. Someone took a photo, a journalist saw it, there were comments and so on.
Something struck me here. The ashes are a reminder – ‘Remember’, says the one giving the ashes – a reminder to ourselves and to others when they see them. But also, I think, to God, whether the ashes have stayed on our skin or not. The ashes are a prayer, first and foremost a prayer. They say to the Lord, Look, I am dust.
And that is glorious. What is dust? The smallest visible particle of creation. Something we walk on, something that’s scattered, that’s blown about in the wind. Something insignificant. ‘Remember, Lord, that I am dust.’ But, God loves his creation, even this tiniest part of it. God does not love pride, human arrogance, when we put all our tanks on parade or launch our fly-pasts into the air. He loves dust. He loves the small and overlooked, the blown-about and the trampled on. And he remembers. ‘As a father has compassion on his sons, the Lord has pity on those who fear him, for he knows of what we are made, he remembers that we are dust’ (Ps 103: 13-14). He sees the dust, he remembers the dust, feels for the dust, bends down to the dust, can do marvellous things with it. In the beginning, according to Genesis, he scooped up the dust of the earth and made humanity of it. Hannah, the childless woman who becomes unexpectedly pregnant, sings in her song: ‘He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash-heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour’ (1 Sam 2:8). And a Psalmist echoes her: ‘Who is the like the Lord, our God … who stoops from the heights to look down, to look down upon heaven and earth? From the dust he lifts up the lowly, from the dungheap he raises the poor’ (Ps 112:5-7). And, says Daniel, ‘many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake’ (Daniel 12:2).
Israel in the Old Testament was forever finding herself in the dust: in the dust of slavery in Egypt, in the dust of exile in Babylon, her beautiful Jerusalem reduced to dust by her enemies. But dust is a good thing to be. God doesn’t it find it yucky or repellent; he doesn’t ignore it or trample on it. He’s like William Blake; he sees ‘the world in a grain of sand’. He finds it irresistible. God loves what he makes, dust included. Usually we don’t notice dust, sometimes we treat each other like dirt. But God remembers it. God sees it. God bends down to it, takes it up, wakens it, shapes it, does wonderful things with it. It is all gold-dust or star-dust to him. It’s good to be dust. God even became dust, became flesh. He came into ‘the land of dust’. And in the Psalm Christ prayed on the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ were the words, ‘they lay me in the dust of death’ (Ps21:16). He went even there.
Lent is a journey. It reproduces the journey of the people of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. In a way, it reproduces every human journey. It begins in the dust and it ends with an empty tomb. It begins with the first man, Adam, the ‘man of dust’ St Paul calls him: us, and it ends with the second man, the ‘man of heaven’, the risen man, Christ. We bear ‘the image of the man of dust’, says Paul, and are destined to ‘bear the image of the man of heaven’ (1 Cor 15: 49). Lent and Easter, death and resurrection, dust and glory.
‘Remember, Lord, that I am dust.’ It’s a prayer. If we pray it from the heart, not ashamed to be dust, if we stop treating others like dirt, we can be sure of an unforgettable grace. God will find us irresistible. God will do to us what he did to his Son who went down, with us, into the dust of death, and now lives and reigns forever and ever. Those old, crumbly bones in the casket: he can transform them. My going down to the dust: it’s there he’ll find me.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 14 Feburary 2018)