I grew up in what is sometimes called a “low church” tradition that didn’t observe much of the church calendar. We certainly didn’t participate in rituals we thought were attempts to earn the favor of God — though, to be fair, others thought we attempted to earn God’s favor by the things we didn’t do.
I had a couple of Catholic friends as a kid, and I felt sorry for them when they had to spend the 40 days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter abstaining from ice cream, comic books, and other childhood necessities — and from meat on Fridays. It wasn’t until well into my adult life that I came to understand and appreciate such practices and the “high church” expression of faith.
One of those expressions occurs today — Ash Wednesday — as millions of Christians all over the world are marked on their foreheads in the shape of a cross with the ashes of last year’s Palm Sunday branches. As part of the ritual, a priest or minister looks each congregant in the eyes and says these depressing words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Ash Wednesday is not a feel-good day on the church calendar for most people. I wonder, though, whether we who embrace the perspective of evolutionary creation might see other layers of meaning in this reminder of who we are.
All are from dust
We are dust. It is difficult to maintain that this is some sort of chemical analysis of the composition of humans. The words are taken from Genesis 3:19, where God told “the man” that he is going to toil, struggle, and sweat trying to get food from the ground. Then he’ll return to the ground, for that’s where he was taken from to begin with — you are dust, and to dust you will return. It seems this message was understood to apply to all of us. The Psalmist says,
As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. (Psalm 103:13-16)
We are dust. We are mortal. Just like the grass and flowers. The “teacher” of Ecclesiastes asserts the same thing, comparing us to animals:
The fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)
It is natural for evolutionary creationists to read these passages as assertions of solidarity with the life on earth. Plants, animals, and us — we’re all dust. We take that as a metaphor for the truth that we are part of the created order, and as such, we are born and we die. In this respect, we have no advantage over the grass and the animals.
If the biblical authors had access to the scientific information we do today, they might have expressed our commonality with living things even more strongly. For now we understand that in a literal sense we’re made of the same material as all the other life: DNA. We’re all guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine. That’s the stuff of life — from amoeba to lily pads, mosquitoes to giraffes, and paupers, priests, and presidents — all of it is dust; all is DNA.
All dust will be transformed
But then Ash Wednesday ought to spark another thought in us. The message of the day does not stop with a recognition of our mortality. One of the earliest mentions of Ash Wednesday comes from the English Benedictine monk Aelfric (955-1020) who said in his Lives of the Saints:
“We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”
We may be dust and DNA like everything else, but there is something different about us. Of all the life on the planet, it is we alone who can repent.
We enter this season of Lent encouraged by church tradition to examine ourselves. Of course other animals (and bacteria and even viruses if they count as living things) have caused pain and suffering; but it is we who have sinned. We are capable of repenting because of our culpability for our sin. So we take this time to reflect on the fact that we have fallen short of the glory of God, that we stand in need of forgiveness, that our sin is responsible for the events of Good Friday — the day that Jesus died.
Was Jesus dust too? A couple of weeks ago at the BioLogos office, content editor Brad Kramer and I were discussing whether Jesus would have died of old age had he not been crucified (yes, those are the kinds of conversations that spring up at our office). Some people respond to such thought experiments with, “That is pointless to think about, because Jesus had to be crucified for our sins.” Right, but just play along for a little bit, because how you answer this question might reveal something about your Christology. If you can’t imagine Jesus growing old and dying of natural causes, then it is not clear that you see him as truly human.
Jesus the human was dust and DNA too.
But he also gave a glimpse of our future — a future of which the Old Testament authors quoted above seemed unaware. Jesus was the first fruits of the resurrection. Our hope is founded on the belief that what happened to him will happen to us, too. This dust will be transformed. And not just us, but all of creation — a new heavens and a new earth. John Polkinghorne used the phrase creatio ex vetere (creation out of the old) to describe this transformation that awaits the groaning creation. Christ has redeemed it all.
The late Ernan McMullin — one of the godfathers of the contemporary science and religion movement — in Christian Scholars Review wrote:
When Christ took on human nature, the DNA that made him the son of Mary may have linked him to a more ancient heritage stretching far beyond Adam to the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas. And so, in the Incarnation, it would not have been just human nature that was joined to the Divine, but in a less direct but no less real sense all those myriad organisms that had unknowingly over the eons shaped the way for the coming of the human.
We humans have been shaped through the death and suffering wrought by eons of evolution — life forms that came from the dust and returned to it. Yet their lives are caught up in ours through unbroken chains of DNA that record our history. And we who have been granted self-awareness are able to look to the future made possible by the Lord of the universe who took this DNA upon himself and began the process of transforming our dust into eternal life.
No matter what your denominational background and expression of Christian faith, we hope you take the opportunity today and throughout Lent to reflect on the fact that we are dust and DNA, and to act on the fact that we can repent.