“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We begin Lent each year with a reminder that we are created of earth, that humble stuff we tread beneath our feet. We seldom notice the dust unless we’re trying to remove it from our hands or shoes. Insults are often rooted in an accusation of being like dirt – worthless and polluting, unfit for polite society. Yet we all have our origins in that humble earth – all of us – all humanity, creatures, and plants on this earth. And all we know on this planet has its origins in the dust that comes from the stars – the cosmos and all that is in it originates from the same humble stuff. That stuff – dirt, soil, dust – supplies our daily needs – it roots crops, nourishes fruit, supplies minerals, vitamins, and pharmaceuticals. It harbors microscopic life that recycles organic matter and eventually returns us to the dust. We recognize this when we acknowledge God as the ground of our being – all we are and all we have comes from God’s creative action.
To remember that we are dust, even stardust, is to know our connection with everything and everyone God has created. We are all relatives, and our well-being depends on the well-being of every other part of creation. The way God has created – both God’s economy and God’s ecology – mean that when we die our mortal flesh returns to dust and ashes and eventually yields a new creation. In death we affirm that ultimately there is new life. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection make that evident in the flesh, in a way that lies beyond our full understanding and knowledge. His witness invites us to join the divine economy, to become a conscious part of this divine ecology. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, God continues to make new life out of what we reject or fear or even ignore. God is continually creating, re-creating, and restoring the connectedness of creation.
Lent is our annual reminder of those humble and exalted connections, and an invitation to learn it again, more deeply. That is what the prophet Joel urges on his listeners: turn your hearts back to God, return to your origin and your creator, and know that in returning you will find life.
The ancient disciplines of Lent – prayer, fasting, giving alms – aid that journey of returning to God, who is our source and our end. This is a season for growing in our ability to meet God in silence and awareness, and an opportunity to meet our neighbor in more loving embrace – to acknowledge and celebrate our common origin and relationship.
How might our prayer grow through this Lent? Choose a time each day to be still and know God as origin of breath, food and drink, the lives of loved ones, and the love that blesses us all, the source of passion that brings joy to work and play and delight in the beauty of creation. Make an intentional turn in thanksgiving and confidence to the one who is nearer than our breath and more embracing than our very clothes – as the saints have taught us through the ages. Find small ways to give thanks even for the challenges and resistance we meet, to find some small hope in the face of enemies and death and sorrow, knowing that God will in some way turn all of it for life’s increase. Make this a season for prayer around our hunger for reconciliation – with family, old friends, neighbors, or political opponents. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and of Ukraine, Sudan, and Syria. Peace is built one relationship and one encounter at a time, and each restored relationship has impact far beyond the immediate one. We are indeed all connected – and peace spreads from person to person.
Fasting and alms-giving are most centrally about relationships of justice, and encourage us to turn toward God and the image of God in our neighbors. We limit our own appetites in order that others might have enough to eat and the basic stuff of life. We acknowledge our own mortality by tasting hunger. In the gospel we heard Jesus urges us to do it with humility – that very word remembers our origins in humus, earth, dust. Acknowledge your humble origins, and don’t show off your holy behavior, he says, for it defeats the purpose. Pray in the quiet of your heart, fast as an act of solidarity with others, not as an act of pride over them; and treasure what is truly valuable. St. Francis named that treasure as the poor. When we turn our hearts toward the poor – the refugee, an enemy, the spurned and forgotten, the discounted and the unloved, public sinners and even the haughty (who are themselves consumed by poverty of spirit) – turn toward these poor and find treasure indeed, in the image of God. The exercises of Lent can awaken compassion that will yield greater justice and more abundant life for all.
We had a taste of what is possible in the transfiguration we heard last Sunday: see what is possible in the near presence of God, in the divine radiance of transformed hearts and community. That is what we aspire to, and it is what Lent prepares us for.
Yet we can’t ever keep a truly “clean” Lent, for even a conscious and observant life is a continual process of little deaths and resurrections. God isn’t finished with us yet. Love yourself as you love your neighbor, remembering that we are all made of dust and dirt. That dust holds the possibility of life abundant. May you keep a holy Lent, and an earthy one.