From Dust to Dust…to Dust

After tracing the scattered trail of “dust” through the Scriptures, I’ve come to think that many of us have got Lent only half right. Observing Lent has become a dour discipline because we imagine it to be primarily focused on repentance and mourning. Penitence is well and good but it’s only one side of the story. I think our imaginations are trained such that we see only death in the first word on Ash Wednesday and must wait for Easter to receive the last word of life. But what if Lent can be reframed as a period of penitence and celebration, of curse and blessing, where life and death together serve as bookends for both Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday?

Lent commences with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. The priest paints an ashen cross on the penitential forehead quoting what is generally considered to be the climax of the curse: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19b). This verse is often taken to simply refer to man’s mortality. After all, the curse can be summed up in one word: death. Given that the pronouncement comes on the heels of the statement that man will return to the ground in burial, this seems to make perfectly good sense. But what if there is more to this “curse” than we are accustomed to see? What if being dust is actually something glorious?

Buried in the grave pronouncement “you are dust and to dust you shall return” is the great promise of restored life. The first mention of dust in the Bible is not Genesis 3:19 but Genesis 2:7: “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” God formed man from the dust of the earth and this was part of the goodness of creation, consummated with a benediction. In no way does Genesis 2 imply that dust is a metaphor for human frailty; for this to be the case, some qualification indicating that nuanced meaning is required (i.e., Gen 18:27). [1]

The first two chapters of Genesis depict humanity, made from the dust, as kings and queens created to rule over God’s creation as vice-regents (Gen 1:26-28). While the dénoument of the curse in Genesis 3:19b does indicate judgment, the reference to “dust” serves as a double entendre indicating both loss and promise. This is not without precedent. We see a similar move in Genesis 3:15b: “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This is often considered the protoeuangelion – Greek for “first gospel.” Though the serpent and the seed exchange mortal blows, the curtain closes with the seed’s foot upon the serpent’s head. When understood in its ancient near eastern context, the foot upon the head of an enemy symbolizes victory and domination: though the seed dies, he has the ultimate victory over the serpent. [2]

If Genesis 3:15b is the protoeuangelion, Genesis 3:19b may be considered the deuteroeuangelion – the second gospel promise. As everything in Genesis 2 indicates, to be dust is an inherently good thing and not a curse at all. Thus, the reminder “you are dust” in Genesis 3:19b is no indictment but a reminder of the imago dei. To be dust is good. The return to the dust, on the other hand, is bad, emphasizing not so much physical death but the loss of royal office. [3] Despite the anti-coronation of Genesis 3:19, the reminder “you are dust” is a promise of hope that though the royal office is lost, it shall be regained. In this reading, the image is that of kings and queens in exile, awaiting the day when they would regain their throne.

Dust, in one sense, only becomes a dirty word after the fall but it is ultimately redeemed. The arc of redemptive history is one that goes from dust to dust… to dust. Easter is therefore the reversal of Ash Wednesday, but also its fulfillment.

The reality of the incarnation and the bodily resurrection are crucial here. The Word takes on flesh and becomes human. Because humanity is made of dust, Jesus partakes of the same stuff. He becomes adulterated dust and through his crucifixion and resurrection rises “from dust to kingship.” We must remember that Jesus does not transcend dust, sloughing human flesh in order to rule and reign, but is resurrected in the flesh. He is the firstborn from the dead, the firstborn of all creation. He becomes truly dust – resurrected dust, new creation dust – and so ascends the throne as Lord and King.

In a surprising way, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus flips the curse of Genesis 3:19 on its head. Returning to dust is now no longer the loss of royal status and the promise of death but exactly its opposite. Returning to dust refers to resurrection, our enthronement as kings and queens and the promise of life everlasting. What if this is the full story of Lent, the hope to which Ash Wednesday points? Dust becomes both a memento mori and a memento vivere.

To retrain your imagination to see the full horizon of Lent, I commend Malcolm Guite’s sonnet “Ash Wednesday” to your reading. The poem captures both the judgment of loss and the hope of re-coronation in Christ. It reminds us that though death is our end, Lent offers the opportunity to live – even now – as truly dust.

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross;
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing,
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognize in Christ their Lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow. [4]

 

[1] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chs. 1-17, Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990, 158.
[2] This is demonstrated famously by King Tut’s sandals. Depictions of Egypt’s enemies were on the soles of King Tut’s sandals. When King Tut walked, he trod his enemies underfoot symbolizing his dominance over them. For examples in the Bible see Joshua 10:24 and Psalm 110:1.
[3] Walter Brueggemann, “From Dust to Kingship,” ZAW 84 (1972), 2.
[4] Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons: Poetry for the Christian Year, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012, 26.

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