Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust

Painting by Julian Fałat, 1881

In the Western Christian calendar, today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. Lent is the 40-day season of reflection and repentance before the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.

This evening, my wife and son and I will go to an Ash Wednesday service at our church, where we will enter in darkness and silence, sing somber songs, and hear this call:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

2019 Book of Common Prayer

After readings and prayers, we will present ourselves at the front for the imposition of ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. The ashes symbolize our mortality. For each of us, the priest says:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

These words are from Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve had fallen into sin, and God pronounces the sentence of death upon them as punishment. In Genesis 2, God made human beings from the dust of the earth. There was nothing bad in God’s eyes about our being made from dust. He made us that way, after all. But it does remind us of how finite and dependent we are.

Since we are made of the dust of the earth, the Bible is teaching (though not in a scientific way) that we are made of the same stuff as the rest of creation. Science fills out the details of this picture by revealing that we ourselves, all life on Earth, the Earth itself, the other planets in our Solar System, the Sun, and all other stars are made of atoms, which are made of electrons, protons, and neutrons. The latter two are made still further of quarks. We don’t yet know if this hierarchy goes down further. We also don’t know what makes up the mysterious substance called “dark matter”, which makes up some 90% of the matter in the universe. Nevertheless, we have well-founded suspicions that all of these forms of matter are unified in a single physical description somehow.

But where did the atoms come from? Well, firstly there is hydrogen, just one proton and one electron. It was formed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang, along with helium and a smattering of other elements. But in order for life’s chemistry to work, we need heavier elements, like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc. These were formed billions of years later in the centers of stars by nuclear fusion. In one form or another, when these stars died, they released these elements out into space, which mixed into clouds of gas, which under the relentless pull of gravity became new stars and planets. Eventually, some of these elements formed the Earth. And some of them ended up in you and me. As astronomer Carl Sagan rightly said in his book Cosmos, “we are made of star stuff.”

The periodic table of the elements, colored by cosmic origin. The human figure at right shows the proportion of elements which originated from various processes. (Credit: NASA/CXC/K. Divona)

What a crazy thought. The seemingly ordinary atoms which make up you and me were forged in the fiery furnaces of the Big Bang, the interiors of stars, and stellar explosions. We are made of stardust. Because of our humanity, we are a lot more than that, but we are stardust all the same.

From stardust you are, and to stardust you shall return.

There is thus something inherently cosmic about our existence and our finiteness. In God’s plan, there was also something very good about it. He intended to sustain us from the beginning against the decay inherent in a good cosmos that yet still needed consummation and final completion. That’s what the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was for. But because of human sin, we are separated from the presence of God, and return to disordered stardust at the end of our lives.

If the story I have told isn’t strange enough, it gets even more incredible. The Bible teaches that God himself became part of our finite existence. In the first chapter of his Gospel, St. John says “the Word became flesh” in the person of Jesus Christ. Flesh made from dust. The Word became dust.

The Word became stardust.

Though he lived a life without sin, Jesus returned to the stardust from which he came in his death on the cross. The Bible teaches that this death was the atoning sacrifice for sin and the defeat of the evil powers that array themselves against God and humanity. 40 days from now, on Easter we will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus into new bodily life. Life breathed back into dead stardust, but this time for all eternity.

Thus Jesus’ resurrection is more than only the guarantee of our own resurrection as we trust in his promise, though of course it is certainly this first. It is also God’s final stamp of approval on creation itself, the re-pronouncement of “very good” upon its existence. The redemption of humans is thus in this sense connected to the redemption of the entire cosmos. The very use of the ashes themselves in the Ash Wednesday rite also symbolizes this, as the ordinary (star-)dust of the earth is used to communicate a spiritual truth in a profoundly physical way.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.