What better day to talk about life and death than on Ash Wednesday of the Christian Calendar? Ash Wednesday has for a long time been the Christian observance that resonates most with me. When I did my Master’s thesis on the topic of death and began questioning the fear of death we are so conditioned to have, one of my professors pointed to my young age and my likely distance from death to explain my lack of fear. You can take my word for it, though, I am no stranger to death. I’ve felt its presence slowly creeping and I’ve received word of its sudden grasp.
Ash Wednesday does more than remind us of our immortality; well, it should anyways. Often the part of scripture that is recited does nothing more than remind us of our sin and impeding death. But, if you look at the surrounding scripture the story radically changes. Yes, it is a story of deceit, sin, and punishment; a story that was likely told to explain why one manifestation of life does not last forever. Let’s read around all of that, though, and in-between the lines.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”
20 Adam[c] named his wife Eve,[d] because she would become the mother of all the living.
To me, this piece of scripture illustrates the cycle of life and death- a cycle that would not be if it were not for death. In simple terms this says to me: you will work for your food that comes from the ground, the very ground that you were made from, and then when you die you will return to that ground and all of the other living things will continue to eat of the ground from which you were made and to which you have returned.
This is all pretty cool to me, but let’s make it hot by thinking about what we are really physically made of: STARDUST!!!! Now, that is hot. If you don’t believe me because I study religion and not science you are rightfully skeptical, so here is confirmation from physicists:
So, if we extend the narrative, all matter on earth is composed of some stardust and manifestations of life are embodied in matter, which gets its sustenance (in the form of food) from other embodied manifestations of life.
There is a fair chance that one day the earth will be engulfed into the sun, and so all of the stardust that embodied life on earth will become part of a star again. Mind totally blown?!?! Mine is. Again, if you don’t believe me just ask the pros,
What if the stardust we are made of is stardust that already has embodied life forms amongst the cosmos a long time ago, or it will again in the future? We are so incredibly connected through death not only to other earthly matter and life, as we eat and then we ourselves become a part of providing sustenance for new life, but to the entire cosmos. That is what Ash Wednesday is about to me. It’s not a sad reminder that humans messed up and therefore will die, it is an awe-struck moment of realizing how incredible and miraculous life is and that calls for deep gratitude for the death that sustains it.
For stardust you are
and to stardust you will return.