“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
This phrase will be prayed over many who gather today to be “anointed” with ashes. In my youth, I took it to be rather demeaning. I understood it to say that all my friends at Mass and I were just discountable, forgettable dirt. I’m afraid that many of us still have that perspective. Because of whatever message we heard as kids, or some societal standards we did not meet, we think that are just dust…worthless. This is true for many of the folks we serve through our agencies. They may not attend a specific service today, but they experience that same lack of worth or feeling that they are just dust. This negative view of the self, perpetuated by a misunderstanding of what it means to be dust, causes so much suffering and pain.
Gratefully, I’ve come to learn another meaning about being “dust.” It’s from the first few lines of the second creation story in Genesis. God digs into the dirt – the clay of the ground – and lovingly forms a human being. In Hebrew, the term for dirt or clay is “Adamah,” while the word for the human formed out of this Adamah is “Adam.” You see, that first human, (Adam taken from Adamah) that God pours creative energy into and breathes His own breath into, is you and me.
The human person finds roots in the dust of the earth. Not in a way that is demeaning, but in an awesome way. In Scripture, God saw a pile of dirt and envisioned a creature that could be created in God’s own image who would forever reflect the divine creative imagination.
When we hear “you are dust” today, let’s not hear “dirt to be shaken off our shoes” but “gift of life with limitless dignity, breathing in God’s Spirit.” If we receive ashes with an awareness of our deep connection to the earth, we recognize our solidarity with all humanity – particularly the clients we serve. And we can embrace our call to care for the source of our life, this earth, our call to lift up one another in recognition our dignity through our creation by God’s own hand, and our call to give thanks to our God who so lovingly shares with us the gift of life.
Fr. Ragan Shriver is Associate Professor of Practice and Director of the MSSW program at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, and Special Assistant to the President for Strategic Integration at Catholic Charities USA.