Ash Wednesday & (Cosmic) Dust


It was a very fortuitous circumstance that today, Ash Wednesday, my feminist theologies class was finishing up Ask the Beasts, by Elizabeth Johnson. This is a lyrical, prophetic text, in which Johnson makes a compelling argument that care for creation belongs at the heart of Christian faith, and that God Herself is deeply present in creation, in all of its aspects, redeeming every individual being and creation itself in a vision of one, great interconnected cosmic community.  Nothing is lost; no pelican chick suffers and dies alone.

She uses the concepts of deep incarnation (thank you, Niels Gregersen) and deep resurrection as a way to articulate the depth and breath of Christ’s incarnation, reminding us that Christ became flesh–stuff of the cosmos, and that the whole universe shares in the eschatological promise of new life.  She further invites us to reflect with humility and joy on our embeddedness in the whole of the cosmos, and that we are physically linked through our bodies, and through the body of Christ, to every other being in creation.

This is particularly relevant for Ash Wednesday, as we remember today that we are dust, and dust we shall return.  Johnson reminds us that it is not only our bodies that are made of dust, but the bodies of the stars and the comets, the body of the lifeless squirrel that I saw on my run this morning, the body of the decomposing tree on the battlefield, and the bodies of every creature that has ever lived or will ever live.  We all wonderfully and fearfully made from the same dust, to which we shall return:  life feeding into death feeding into life.

There are two things I’d like to share that articulate this idea beautifully; I hope you enjoy them. The first is a prayer from Circle of Grace, by Jan Richardson.

Blessing the Dust

For Ash Wednesday
All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was to turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial–
did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.
The second is On the Beach at Night Alone, by Walt Whitman.
On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes,
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

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