Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dirty and dusty

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter. From Ash Wednesday, there are forty days until Easter (excluding Sundays, which are always for celebrating the resurrection, not fasting).

In most liturgical services on this day, the sign of the cross using the ash from the previous year's Palm Sunday is made upon the foreheads of worshippers. It is called a sign of penitence and mortality. That is, it symbolises that we are both broken and dying, flawed and finite, fragmented and fragile, dirty and dusty.

As the mark is made, these words are spoken:

Remember, o man/woman/mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the good news.
How to relate our mortality to our sinfulness is an important issue in Christian theology. Are we dying because we sin? Or do we sin because we are dying? Which is the more fundamental problem and how does the good news address each?

The Ash Wednesday quote above gives one way into this discussion. Notice that while both mortality and sinfulness are referenced, the appropriate response to each differs. We remember our mortality; we repent of our sins. Our mortality is not itself a fault, but part of our creaturely existence. We receive the breath of life, it is never ours to claim or secure, our life is always dependent upon a source beyond us. The call to remember this is the call to relinquish control over our deaths, to relinquish the demand that I must be kept alive at all costs, and so to discover the freedom that comes from giving space in my life to projects other than survival.

Yet we are to repent of our sins, to turn from our self-obsession and to discover joy (and pain) in meeting and loving others beyond the echo-chamber of the self. This repentance will make no sense unless it is accompanied, enabled and completed by believing the good news. Only the good news of the risen Jesus liberates us from the patterns of false behaviour that diminish our capacity for life and love. That is why the sign that is made in ash is that of a cross. The cross symbolises the good news of liberation: not liberation from being dust and ashes (the sign of the cross is itself made in ash and God's saving work amongst us in Christ was as dust and ashes), but freedom from guilt at our dirty lives, freedom from sin and its false dreams, freedom from despair and so freedom to be truly human.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians are marked as dirty and dusty, but the shame of the dirt and the frustration of the dust are placed within the hope of the cross.

Much more can be said on each of these topics, but let me finally introduce one further idea. While being exhorted to remember our mortality - that we will return to dust - we are also encouraged to remember our origin and identity- that we are dust. Like Adam, we are from and of the earth ('adamah in Hebrew). Being dusty means not only that our life is received as a gift, but that we exist as a member of the community of creation, in solidarity with the rest of the created order. Although we are often quick to lay claim to human uniqueness, part of lenten penitence is re-membering ourselves within this larger sphere. This is both dignity and frustration. Dignity because we too belong to the ordered material world over which God declared his blessing. Frustration because we share with all created things a present "bondage to decay". But our origin and destiny are bound together with the non-human world. Thus, to be smeared with cinders is to be humbled, and yet simultaneously to discover in that humility a properly human and creaturely glory.


gbroughto said...

part of lenten penitence is re-membering ourselves within this larger sphere

I like this even as I tremble at the implications. On a recent trip to the US I discovered 'anarcho-primitivism' which appears surprisingly open to good theology. But I am unlikely to join them any time soon...

Important as things like composting, walking instead of driving, and other disciplines that help me re-member that I am dust, what else does this statement ask of me? I love inner-city living and will be located here for the foreseeable future. I love the bush and camping and make somewhat regular escapes, and this helps. But your phrase evoked the same dis-ease I felt when discovering the anarcho-primitivists...

gbroughto said...


what I am referring to in my previous? This excerpt from wikipedia might help...

For most primitivist anarchists, rewilding and reconnecting with the earth is a life project. They state that it should not be limited to intellectual comprehension or the practice of primitive skills, but, instead, that it is a deep understanding of the pervasive ways in which we are domesticated, fractured, and dislocated from ourselves, each other, and the world. Rewilding is understood as having a physical component which involves reclaiming skills and developing methods for a sustainable co-existence, including how to feed, shelter, and heal ourselves with the plants, animals, and materials occurring naturally in our bioregions.

byron smith said...

Good question. I had considered writing another paragraph trying to flesh out what I meant by the phrase, but (a) the post was already too long and (b) I wasn't totally sure what it might mean myself (part of the joy of blogging is floating as-yet-incomplete thoughts and being able to add to and modify them as they progress).

So what might it mean to remember that we are dust? Well, at a minimum, I suspect it means that we cannot simply assume "the environment" is something "out there", an appendix to our existence that can be treated purely instrumentally as a source of "resources". Instead, we recognise that we belong here, that we share a common origin and destiny with other created things. And, in what I have been intending as a future post, that we share a common task as well: the praise of the creator. So we are reliant upon the non-human in order to truly be human, since we are created to join our voices with creation's praise (in what might be called doxological interdependence). Note that this also means (contra some forms of deep green thought) that the rest of creation needs us to truly be itself too. This puts the lie to the idea that we ultimately face a choice between caring for humans and caring for "the environment".

So far, I have mainly spoken to what this remembering might mean for our imagination. As for practices, I suspect that there may be many ways of faithfully re-membering our common dustiness. And we may well have lessons to learn from anarcho-primitivists! (though I am not saying that we need to become APs, since I am yet to be persuaded that "domestication" is part of our problem). I suspect that this journey is one that will require and attract much more reflection over the coming decades from both within and without the church. I hope that the church is not closed to re-thinking (once more) our humanity in the light of Christ and discovering what the way of the cross means for this generation.

gbroughto said...

Yes - good, because I think intellectualising the response is another way in whcih we are actually dis-membered from the larger sphere. I suspect people like you and me and others who pass this way are more adept at understanding or interpreting this larger sphere than living faithfully within it.

Also, like many aspects of the life of faith, I think am tempted to do this alone rather than part of the wider body... another way in which easily become dis-membered.

but as you indicate in your last paragraph, there are plenty of opportunities to join together and find the resources of faith and theology for living faithfully together in this larger sphere. A gut instinct tells me that resurrection theology is fairly crucial in all this, and only secondarily incarnational theology - neither of which are strengths of the theological heritage we share. O'D's R&MO set a map of the likely terrain, but my sense was didn't travel all that far along it (but this may be unfair - it was a quickish read through of it...). Out of interest - how much is resurrection theology a part of your research?

Anonymous said...

Hi Bro,
I don't know if I ever told you that I spoke last year at the barney's womens event, we had to chose a verse to share and say what made it signiicant for us for about 10 mins. I chose that verse- "we remember that we are but dust " and I talked exactly about being dusty and dirty....ahh it was very exciting for me think about it as I wrote mind is not as great as yours but it may be a little great if great minds think alike : ). I'll find it saved somewhere and send it to you.

byron smith said...

Hey Sis,
That would be excellent - I would love to read it and see how much I just unwittingly plagiarised!

Plessey Mathews said...

Thank you for the post.

Small correction is required for the link in your response comment "the environment" is something "out there", which points to "javascript void"

byron smith said...

Plessey - thanks. I can't now remember exactly what I was hoping to link to with that comment, but perhaps it was this post.