It’s a verse we do not want to hear “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The whole thing is a total bummer and, because it talks about death, is a verse we reflexively reject. Starting Lent off with a mega downer like this makes the general resistance to Lent extremely understandable. It’s about death and ending, penitential denial of self and and general gloom and depression. Or at least that’s what we’ve been told it means.
To no one’s surprise, this approach of doom and death is not actually the reason the church chose to establish this season. Lent is instead a time of reflection and spring-cleaning as we go through our lives and look for the clumps and eddies that have piled up over the years. It’s a season for self reflection, a time of seeking the parts of our living, the heart habits, which lead us away from life. This is a season to test how hardened our hearts actually are and to look for what we need to let go of in order to open our lives to God. Lent is a season for the spiritual practice of getting rid of the things that draw us away from God and adding those things which draw us near.
But if this is about growing deeper toward God, why do we start with death and dust?
We do it for two reasons. The first is best explained by Robert Capon “Jesus came for the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead and it is our energetic rejection of our last-ness, lost-ness, least-ness, little-ness, and death” that makes it so hard for Jesus to grow in our lives. By starting the season with dust and ash, last and lost, we have a chance to recognize the uncomfortable reality of last, lost and least in us by facing our dusty death. We can come down from the pedestals we put ourselves on (or under) in all the variations of grandiosity and excess humility in which we out ourselves.
we say “no one else has: been as awesome as, done as well as, suffered as much as, sinned as deeply as (etc, etc.) us” (or at least that’s what we tell ourselves). We are the best/worst whatever, the most secure/most vulnerable person in the world; and the list goes on. The whole list is however, flat out lies. They are lies that deny our last, least, lost, little-ness and our death. Thus to face them down, we have to see that we are dust, made from dust and returning to dust in the end. It’s an antidote to the grand delusions with which Satan tempt us. Dust and ash, last and least, lost and little but also loved.
These words are also an invitation to freedom because dust is limited so it cannot build eternal power structures. We cannot force the cosmos to bow to our will and recognizing this is freedom. When we see our limits, we can then use the hell out of every inch we have rather than breaking our hearts over what is out of reach.
Sonnets and haiku have definite limits, hard structural controls and prescribed rhyme schemes. The opponents of limits would assure us that no one can make beauty with such limits but there are a few rather famous refutations of this sort of narrow-mindedness.
The poets knew their limits and instead of being depressed, trapped in inaction and giving up because “we can’t be unlimited.” These people used the hell out of what they had and made verses of beauty that echo through the centuries. In the same way we can, when we see our limits as dust, use every inch of life, every split second of living as thoroughly as possible. We too can find freedom in our limits.
Thus this verse against which we bridle and fight because it is a downer actually ends up showing us who we are and how fragile we are. With this knowledge we can then begin our Lenten discipline of letting go of those things which distract and choosing the powerful and beautiful new way of life in Christ.