“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
This sermon was preached at the 12pm and 6pm masses on Ash Wednesday at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence. Music for the day included a plainchant mass setting according to Tone VII, Allegri’s Miserere, Aaron Copland’s anthem Have mercy on us, O my Lord, and a J.S. Bach organ voluntary on the chorale O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross. (Full disclosure: this sermon is a major revision of the sermon I preached for the same day in 2013, as curate at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver, Colorado.)
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, amy obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
One of the great contributions of any civilization is its art. From Michaelangelo’s David to Incan temples to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, there is something about the stunningly beautiful that gives us pause: that lets us glimpse an ultimate reality, that seems to prove beyond doubt that there is something more out there, something better, something pure and true. And we think that if we could just find it, if we could just lay our hands on it, our world would make sense, our lives would have meaning and value and a beauty of their own. So we hold up the ideal. We look for the Davids, the shining marble statues, and we strive for them, to possess them for our own.
The same is true in that part of our lives we call spiritual. We know what we ought to do, and we have patterns that show us how to ascend the dizzying heights of holiness: people like Dorothy Day, and Mother Theresa; like the anonymous alcoholic who has turned his life around; and famous names from ages past, like Francis, and Julian of Norwich. We recognize in them lives well-lived, full of wisdom and peace and goodness. They show us what life can be, invested with the glory of God. And we think that if we could just be a little more like them we would be all right.
Art’s great communication of human beauty, and the saints’ great communication of spiritual glory: both are treasures in any civilization. But on Ash Wednesday, the ashes remind us that the image of the pristine marble statue is hollow; or if not hollow, then at least it’s only a part of the story. Life is messy. We screw up. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves. We do not live up to our own expectations. We are embarrassed by the truth of our lives. We are only too aware that there is a huge gap between the portrait of our lives and the portrait of the life of even the least of the saints.
“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” Today’s ashes remind us that the vast uninteresting sequence of uninteresting moments — fraught with small failures and the rotten fruits of human weakness — that this sequence is not some departure from a golden ideal which it is our task to recover. But rather today’s ashes remind us that this sequence lies near to the foundation of human life, perhaps one of the few things each one of us has in common.
“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” The beauteous archetype may be out there somewhere, but even David grew old and died. Even Bach was panned by his critics. Even Francis was lonely and frustrated. Life is not a pristine marble statue. As this ash reminds us of our mortality, it also reminds us that the life we live is characterized by fits and starts, by confusion and injury and loss, and starting over again.
“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” Dust. Into which God breathed to create human life. It is dust of the earth, our dust, which is the connection between us and God. Our dust. Not our perfection.
Art is a treasure because it points towards the ultimate reality of the Beauty of God. It points, but it does not plant that Beauty in us. It is instead our weakness, our brokenness that leads us to God, and it is our dust in which God plants his beauty. We follow Jesus, not to the heights of earthly splendor, but into the desert, where he faces the basest temptations of human nature. We follow Jesus, not to the dizzying heights of personal sanctity, but to the cross, where he hangs the willing subject of death.
There is nothing pretty about this, nothing that sings of Greek proportion, no beautiful edifice of perfect harmony. It is messy, and difficult, with a tangle of loose ends. We are constantly tripping over each other and ourselves. Yet this is the way of the cross. This is the way of Jesus. This is the way of God. And the beauty of this Way of Dust is not that fallible human beings can succeed in painting portraits which resemble God. But rather the beauty of this Way of Dust is that God interjects himself into our lives, into our dust: into our lowest embarrassments and most mundane failures, as well as into our best loves. In this way, God himself becomes the artist, not we ourselves, and you and I become his self portrait. Our lives become shot through with his glory, and the whole creation echoes back the song of the angels.
This Lent I hope we will take seriously this Way of Dust. Its call on us is to take a close look at our lives, to repent of our sins and of all the ways in which we try to keep God out, the ways in which we try to keep our dust for ourselves like a greedy child taking over the sandbox.
“Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” We are nothing more and nothing less than this pile of dust and the breath of God. Let us welcome God’s breath as we live our messy lives. Let us follow Jesus into the desert and be fashioned there into the image of his glory.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.