I hate dusting. As soon as the specks of stuff are wiped away, more come along to take their place. Why is there so much dust? And what is it?
I did some research and got a surprising answer. Turns out, much of the dust in my home is ... me.
Many of those particles floating in the air and collecting in the corners are my dead skin cells, pieces of me shed so that new cells could take their place. The truth is that we're already turning into dust.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that life is short and precious and we should make the most of it. The ashes on our foreheads symbolize how our bodies will return fully to their elemental state someday. But that’s only part of the message.
The fuller message is that the turn-to-dust process has already begun. It started when we were born and continues every moment of our lives. Cells in our body are continuously dying and being shed and replaced.
We’re already dust and we’re already reborn. The divine dance of life and death — dust yielding to new life — is hard-wired into each of us and into all of creation. It’s God’s way.
Scripture reminds us that we’re formed from the dust of earth and thus bound intimately to all creation. Science describes how in our elemental form, we’re made of the same stuff as everything in the universe. Yes, we’re earth dust and star dust, too. Everything follows a path of endless transformation.
Faith is about daily transformation, shedding old ways and replacing them with new ways. Old wineskins must be discarded. If we cling too tightly to the old, we’ll watch it turn to dust in our hands.
Just as new cells emerge to replace discarded ones, God works with us to create a new life out of our daily dustiness. Death is an important and necessary step in the process. Without it, nothing new could appear. God’s nature is to make all things new, including us.
As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, “Almost always when I experience God, it comes in the form of some kind of death and resurrection. ... It’s about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live.”
When we recognize the spiritual physics — the intimate relationship between death and rebirth — we worry a little less about a future burial and focus more on nurturing the new life being born within us and around us.
Life changes forms but never its essence. Love always emerges from our ash heaps. Spirituality encourages this daily transformation. “Dying to self” involves gradually letting go of selfishness, fears, prejudices, judgments, insecurities, ego — all things that prevent us from loving more deeply and inclusively. Our spiritual exfoliation creates room for compassion, empathy, joy, hope, and healing. We become more invested in transforming ourselves and our world.
This process also works on our collective level. We see it unfolding in our society right now. A culture that has for so long reserved power and privilege for a certain caste — white, wealthy, male, straight, Christian — is being shed, bit by bit, to create space for something new. Some are trying to provide life support to an older order, but it’s a futile effort. To borrow an expression from Martin Luther King Jr., such religion is dry as dust and ready for burial.
Leave the dead to bury the dead. God is God of the living. Pay attention to the new life poking up. As Lent begins, let’s allow the ashes to remind us not only of a death to come, but the daily death-and-rebirth cycle that’s in motion within us and around us. Let’s recognize, celebrate, and lovingly nurture the new life emerging from the ashes.