God said to Adam …… ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return’ Genesis 3.19b
Nobody likes being reminded of things that they already know only too well. That’s especially true if you are reminded of something that you already know only too well and would wish not to have to think about. In the case of tonight’s unwelcome reminder we have it every year: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’. And in case the words don’t sink in your face is marked with the dust from which you were created and to which you will return.
‘I already know that’, you may think. I know it because loved ones have returned to dust. I know it because for two years we’ve had put up on our screens the latest number of those returned to dust by the coronavirus. I know it because I see on my screen and on the pages of my newspaper the horrific images of the victims of the current attack on Ukraine. I know it because whereas once, when I was a child, I rejoiced that the progressive increase in the number on my birthday card meant I was growing up, the figures now tell me the unwelcome news that my return to dust is getting nearer. So please don’t summon me to church to be reminded of what I already know.
But what is this yearly telling of what we already know and are hardly able to forget? What is this reminding of the inescapable, this regular re-statement of the obvious? Why this marking of our forehead with ash, the representation of the humus, the soil, the ground from which we humans were made and to which we shall return, the destiny which we all share, however we may differ from each other? And you might wonder too, as you hear the organ piece that will follow my words, why Bach would think the statement Alle Menschen müssen sterben – ‘everyone is bound to die’ – merits musical expression.
As we reflect on the matter-of-factness of this remembrance we are brought face to face with the constant refrain of our tradition that death is never just death, the return to dust never just the chemistry of decay, the life cycle of birth, growth, decline and death never just a life cycle. For the words that will be spoken to us were spoken first, as the story is told, to Adam, the ancestor of all humanity, following his first disobedience, as part of his ejection from Eden. That is to say the tradition holds that mortality is a price of sin, and following Adam’s ejection from Eden mortality is now everywhere, and in Adam all die. Or as it was put by the American theologian Bill Stringfellow, death has a ‘moral ubiquity´; it is everywhere and it has to do with the ways in which humanity has since Adam chosen death rather than life.
Now of course it’s easy to make that into a false understanding, a theory of causation in which every death is some kind of punishment, and we look for blame behind every tragedy. Not so of course: most deaths are to do with physical decline or disease; many happen because the innocent suffer for the sins of the guilty, and only rarely can we speak with any certainty that a death was in some way the deceased’s fault.
But if making the connection between sin and death a kind of causal chain is false, what is true of every death is that it is a signal of the participation of every mortal being in the fruits of Adam’s trans-gression. And that in turn means that this yearly reminder is required as a counter-statement to the terrible forgetting of our dust-origin and our dust-destiny, a forgetting which is at the root of so much unjust suffering. At the root of the pounding into premature dust of the children of Kyiv is that terrible forgetting by Putin and his cronies of their own dust-origin and the ultimate destiny in dust of their dreadful ambitions. It’s that remembrance that stands guard against the casting aside of the restraints on human moral action that is God’s holy will for us all.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return is at the deepest level a piece of prophetic subversiveness, a truth spoken to power from the beginning of the ages. It is proclaimed against the authors of the terrible carnage we are witness as it is also would have restrained those who sought to reduce Jesus Christ to premature dust.
There’s something disturbingly comforting, however, about being able to name an obvious and egregious example of that terrible forgetting, for that phenomenon is everywhere and the reminder is addressed to each of us. It is a start, an agenda, for our accompanying one another through the dusty wilderness of this forty-day enactment of Our Lord’s dusty wilderness of testing.
And even though we are not the monstrous authors of the carnage of innocent people across the sea there is still a word for us here, our dust on our forehead, our own command to remember. For if the command to remember was to all the descendants of Adam and Eve we are all part of their forgetting and of the forgetting that has such terrible consequences. Think of the lead up to any of the crises that dominate our papers, our screens and our anxiety: think of the climate crisis or the atrocities in Ukraine, and you will find there your com¬plicity and mine, the expectations we have placed upon our leaders, the growth and the security we have expected out of life. In all these ways, we are the children of Adam and Eve and their disastrous forgetting.
Let it be clear that this is no argument for failing to notice the particular ways in which those whose forgetting of their own origin in the dust of the earth leads them to pulverise fellow human beings with bombs and shells, and for confronting them in every way possible, and encouraging our leaders in doing that. But just as we share humanity, the dust-origin, with all those who as we speak have to live in their basements, so uncomfortably we also share it with those who meet in palaces and give orders to bomb and to shoot.
So it is that we mark out in dust our Lent agenda: our solidarity with the attacked, the wounded, the killed, those who have been returned to the dust before their time by others’ forgetfulness of their own humanity let alone that of those they attack; then our complicity with a world that resorts to violence by our failure to root out its causes and bear the cost of laying weapons aside.
Let these forty days be for us a time of closeness to the dust of this wilderness, of fervent prayer for our fellow human beings in distress, for the conversion of those whose hearts are filled with hatred, cruelty and deceit, and for ourselves that our attention may be sharper and our wisdom deeper. Weeks will need to pass – a long Lent, in which God only knows what kind of tragedy may unfold – before we’re allowed to declare in music and song, along with our Ukrainian fellow-Christians, the hope we have that God has good in store even for the disobedient children of Adam and Eve, before that is we can dare to complete the sentence that begins with the truth we remember tonight, ‘As in Adam all die’.
Till then may this Lent be a blessing to us all, and against all odds to those who need its promise the most.