4/1/12, Dust You Are

DUST YOU ARE Isaiah 50:4-7, Philippians 2:5-11, John 12:12-16

Think back with me to February 22 of this year.  What happened on that day?  Was there any particularly significant moment for you in that day?  And what have the days since been like?

On Ash Wednesday, with many Christians around the world I stood before a person who marked my forehead with an ashy black cross.  As she did, she solemnly said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

Today marks the culmination of 40 Lenten days of considering what it means that I am dust and to dust I shall return.  I found it provocative that the lectionary scriptures for this Passion Sunday, the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the cross, point us back to our taking on of those ashes, that dust of which we are made.

The prophet Isaiah says “I offered my cheeks to those who would humiliate me.” In the Philippians passage, Paul describes Jesus as one who humbled himself by coming in human likeness.  And in the Gospel that we just read, we see Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, the lowliest, meekest, weakest form of animal transportation.

So how do these brief passages point us back to the symbolism of ashes?  Notice a common word or idea in all three of them: humility.  Isaiah is willing to be humiliated.  Jesus humbled himself by taking on human form.  And he further demonstrated his low human position by riding on the colt of a donkey.


The words humility, humble, humiliate, human are all derived from the Latin humus,  translated  as “ground” or “soil”.  Its meaning, therefore, is “lowly.” We humans are the stuff of earth.  We are dust, and to dust we shall return.   In classical Latin the word humus in reference to persons suggests lowly birth, lack of resources, weakness of character, servitude. In an ancient culture that prized freedom, power, and position, humility, far from being a quality to be admired, was viewed with condescension and contempt.  One’s desire would be to rise out of such a position of lowliness.

Jesus turned that perception on its head by living in constant demonstration of what it means to be fully human, created in God’s image.  True humility is not self-depreciation but self-honesty.  Self honesty means that we come to understand who we really are as God’s creation and what we are called to do… and then living out of the reality of that self-understanding. 

Over 33 years, Jesus grew into a full self-understanding of the work that God had called him to do.  He understood his “humus”- the basic stuff of which he was made. Out of his selfless humanity he served and taught the common people. He challenged the oppressive religious and political systems of the day. As a result of engaging his full humanity, he was put to a humiliating death.  Dust he was, and to dust he returned.  But look at the new life that has continued to blossom forth for the last 2000 years from his commitment to humble service in God’s kingdom.  Humus is the medium in which new life grows. 

 Jesus was called to be a human being like none other has ever been, but we each have our own unique way of being “humus.”   Do you understand yourself as dust?  Do you understand that your life is the earthy medium in which God plants the seeds of continually renewed Creation and brings these seeds to fruition in each generation of humanity? 

 Ash Wednesday marks us with the dust of the earth so that we can come to grips with our true identity. We set aside 40 days for the purpose of examining how we are living out what it means to be fully human in form, yet filled with the Holy Spirit’s passionate, self-sacrificing love. 

 We now enter Holy Week, taking up the palms of praise even as we anticipate walking  with Jesus through the reality of what it means to live in selfless humility.  It means dying to self in hope of rising to life that never dies.  Let us go in peace.


See The Passion Story Enacted    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Jm0Pgiyr3s

By Sandi DeMaster