Dust you are, unto dust you shall return
FORTY DAYS OF LENT: CONFRONTING OUR “ASHNESS”
Man’s mortality is not the question here. Man’s readiness to accept or rather confront that mortality is. How to face the reality of that mortality is a greater challenge though. That is one reality that Lent offers us, a forty day’s journey into this reality, “Dust you are, and unto dust you shall return”. These words date back to the second creation account, “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen.2:7). Somehow, man’s mortality is a guarantee because he is fashioned from the dust of the earth.
In a sense, the human body belongs to the earth. God gave meaning to humanity by breathing into man the breath of life. Man became enlivened. The corporality of man’s existence remains that he will return to his origin at the end of time. That explains to the believer the puzzle about death. At the funeral of a thirty-year-old boy, this question came up regarding why such a flourishing young man should pass away at such a tender age. Prior to that funeral, I had presided at the funeral of a hundred and three years old lady. The daughter who came to render her eulogy wept miserably and everyone wondered why such tears at the death of a centenarian. The daughter stressed that she wasn’t yet prepared to bury her mom given their closeness. If the lamentation at the young boy’s funeral was understandable because he was at his prime, how about one in her hundreds. Truly, it feels terrible to bury a young person, especially if it wasn’t in an accident or any unprecedented mishap. That was the situation for the young man.
Doing funeral for these two individuals back to back made me think of the best way to confront or even to accept the reality of our human nature. Lent sends out an invitation though- “Dust you are, unto dust you shall return”; what I call the “ashness” of human nature. As I read through the scriptures, clearly that the best way to accept this reality is connectedness with God who gave breath to this ashness. By breathing into humanity, God endowed meaning upon man. This same meaning can only be appreciated by living our ashness in view of God the Great Eternity. The book of Wisdom talks about the souls of the upright being in the hands of God, and how no torment will touch them. It maintains that “their hope was rich with immortality” (Wis. 3:14). This is one best way to confront our mortality, to live in uprightness. Living in uprightness dispels the fear of mortality and brings closer our journey to immortality. For that reason, the wise man continued, “The upright, though he dies before his time, will find rest. Length of days is not what makes age honorable, nor number of years the true measure of life; understanding, this is grey hairs, untarnished life, this is ripe old age” (Wis.4:7-9).
Another way to confront our ashness is to live in hope. What does hope do? Pope Francis has often said that hope helps to see beyond the negativity of the present. And this is true. Maryann got married at the age of thirty and was enjoying her marriage. Within a short one-year period, her husband took ill and after about three days, died. She was heart-broken. Unfortunately, her mom became sick, and within the same week she died. She seemed to be beaten by the same incomprehensible reality- our ashness. Maybe she should do some queer things and die too since she lost her two most treasured persons in life cumulatively. Hope kept her alive and going. Two major challenges of our ashness are self-centeredness and sin. Pope Francis teaches that these have corrupted the beauty of creation. These damned Adam and Eve, made them look only on themselves and their distorted nakedness. But hope gives meaning to our mortality. The great apostle Paul promises that “hope will not let us down because the love of God has been poured into our hearts” (Rom.5:5). This is a serious Lenten call.
Lent reminds us to not only dwell on our ashness but importantly to transform it into means to connect with God. Imagine how you feel when you hear the yearly invite, “Be reconciled to God” (2Cor.5:20). It is not just a repetition of old rhyme; it is another wonderful opportunity to live. It is an offer of grace. It is the elimination of hopelessness as Saint Paul reminds us, “However much sin increased, grace was always greater” (Rom.5:21). The Lenten slogan, “Dust you are, unto dust you shall return” is not an alarm for fear as much as it is a signal for hope. It points us not to our futility but to our relevance, our fulfillment as children of God. We are made in God’s image and sure, we need to keep coming to him. Now that the forty day’s journey is starting, count forty steps forward to the loving embrace of God. Count forty days out of your bad habits as well. Think of the ways and occasions that dragged you away from him. Lent is about returning, repenting and repairing. Take the forty steps with your spouse, family, friends, the sick, hungry, abandoned and dejected. Take the steps with prisoners, homeless and destitute. Take the steps through your action. Give up something as a way to return to God, repent and repair that relationship with your neighbor. That gives meaning to your ashness.
Safe journey, and happy Lent!