The words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” remind us all of an undeniable truth which holds for all people and all times, namely, the inevitably of death.
These words are also pronounced at the introduction of the Lenten penitential season, a period of purification. What is the connection between death and purification?
The words “you are dust,” as much as they are true, sound terribly material, as if humans are composed only of matter, which takes us to a material end: death.
We hardly need to be reminded of the reality of death. Just read the newspaper headlines or watch the TV news; then there’s the death we experience within our own family and among our loved ones.
Death appears so close, and the “dust” we are reinforces this reality. While science has made dramatic progress in the last century, humans remain fragile beings not only physically but also psychologically, and our psychic state has consequences on our health.
Have we become more fragile, more vulnerable to mental breakdown, and therefore more prone to weakened physical states? The hospital bed is a reminder we are finite beings. Do we even need “you are dust” to remind us?
While we are indeed dust, it’s also true divine intervention acted upon the dust, as we see in the Book of Genesis: “Yahweh God shaped man from the soil of the ground and blew the breath of life into his nostrils, and man became a living being,” (Gn 2:7).
This extraordinary passage reminds us precisely what we hear at the beginning of the Lenten season: “You are dust,” while the “soil of the ground” conveys the Biblical foundation of our material nature. We are not any different from the earth. We have our source in matter and we return to matter.
But the passage in Genesis, used in a liturgical context to introduce Lent, provides the spiritual depth and meaning of “you are dust.” Both Genesis and the Lenten ritual take us well beyond any materialist interpretation of the human condition to one that places us within the category of spiritual beings with a spiritual end.
The passage from Genesis informs us that not only are we matter, dust from the ground, but we have been literally “animated” – given spiritual life, that is a soul, through God’s intervention.
Our materiality can only have meaning and be understood within a spiritual framework: we are material beings but united to a soul, which God “blew” into us.
Other living beings also were created (Gn 1:11-25) when God “blew the breath of life” into the soil, more than the creation of a living being took place. Human beings turn to dust like all other living organisms that die, but a significant difference appears with humans: at creation humans were infused with a soul, animated, differentiating them not only from other living creatures materially but also spiritually.
In fact, the nature of the human soul is found earlier in Gn 1:26. “God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image in the likeness of ourselves.’”
The spiritual soul that animates the dust of humans makes us godlike. This relationship between the Creator and human creation is beautifully depicted in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Our material nature is animated with divine life and therefore humans have a supernatural end: eternal life.
If ashes serve as a reminder of our finite material nature, purification that is used to symbolize the commencement of the Lenten season re-directs us to our spiritual nature. We become purified and strengthened first through the blood Christ, and then through our own acts of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (CCC, 1434).
Placing ourselves before our Creator who infused us with divine life, creating us in God’s image and likeness, we need to rid ourselves – as St. Augustine tells us in his Confessions – of everything that weighs us down and makes us cling to this world, starting with our sins and vices.
The body and mind are purified to be cleansed of our worldly and sinful attachments that are part of our material and “dust” nature, so we return to our spiritual state – also known as conversion.
We attach ourselves to God through prayer, sacrifice, and the sacraments, a reminder we are called to Eternal Life. The immortal soul, separated from our material bodies at death, by purification and grace, will be re-united with our resurrected bodies for eternity.
Father David Bellusci is a Dominican priest at St. Thomas Aquinas Priory in Toronto.