May 21, 2023
On Ash Wednesday every year, forty days before Easter (actually a little more, because Sundays aren’t counted as days of Lent), Christians begin their preparation for the celebration of the resurrection by being reminded of our mortality. We receive ashes in the sign of the cross as we hear these words: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. We are made of the same stuff of the earth, and eventually our bodies will take their place in the earth once again.
Well, I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the less necessary this reminder becomes. I’m aware that I won’t live forever, and the Easter message of life is becoming less a confession of faith, and more of a hope for the future.
And the older I get, the more I want to hear the message of what happened forty days after Easter when we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus (actually a little more than forty, because we don’t go to church on Thursdays). Weirdly enough, though, it’s the same message: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
It might seem that the message should be the opposite. Jesus did not descend to the earth like everybody else. He overcame death, and when he left, it wasn’t to become one with the soil. He left for the skies; his body ascended to heaven. To the people who first saw it happen, it must’ve seemed the opposite of the message that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And up until very recently (in the scheme of things) it seemed to be the opposite of the ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust message that I and just about every pastor in Christendom repeats at every graveside.
But now we know that it is not the opposite. In a way—and it’s a very important way—it’s the same message. For we now know where the dust of the earth came from. But before we get to that, let’s look at the Bible’s account of creation—the one non-believers poke fun at, the one even we have trouble believing.
The first chapter of Genesis isn’t very technical. It’s just a basic outline, really. Some even think of it as poetry. And if it is poetry, it is actually quite beautiful. But you know what else it is? It is a process. It is evolution. And we can take the first chapter of Genesis and fit it into 21st-century cosmology or evolutionary biology without doing any permanent damage to either. Some Christians think that modern science is godless. (But just about all those same Christians are glad to take advantage of modern science when they need medicine or when they connect to Wi-Fi.) And many scientists think that religion is ignorant, and they paint all believers with the broad brush of fundamentalism.
Yet I’ve never met a pastor in my own denomination who rejects science. Sure, we view scientific discovery and theory through the lens of faith. But there is basically no scientific discovery that I would reject, and—equally as important—there is no scientific discovery that would cause me to question (let alone abandon) my faith, not just in God, but my faith in the God of the Bible.
This means that when I hear about the big bang theory, I feel my faith strengthened. The big bang theory, of course, is the idea that our universe began as a tiny kernel of matter, and that it exploded and is still expanding. This theory doesn’t really contradict the first chapter of Genesis, and Genesis doesn’t contradict the big bang theory.
So please don’t think of the big bang theory as inherently godless. It came into being around 1930, and the man who thought of it was a Belgian named Georges Lemaître. The whole idea was rejected by most scientists at the time, including Albert Einstein. But Lemaître was later proven right, and Einstein admitted he was mistaken. But who was Georges Lemaître? Yes, he was a physicist. But he was also a Roman Catholic priest—hardly the godless scientist that many would like to think came up with the big bang theory.
And because of this theory, we now know that the materials that formed the earth came from dying stars billions of years ago. That’s where the very stuff of life comes from—carbon and oxygen atoms, for example, the very materials that make our existence possible.
Another Roman Catholic priest wrote a poem about all this. His name was Ernesto Cardenal, and his poem was called Cosmic Canticle. It’s quite long—thousands of lines—and in it he wrote:
What's in a star but we ourselves?
All the elements of our bodies and of the planet
were in the entrails of each star.
We are stardust…
So much extraterrestrial material has fallen to earth
that perhaps the very ground we tread is extraterrestrial,
from the depths of the cosmos—
citizens of the universe come to a land
that is itself one celestial body among many others.
We are stardust. We know those words not from a Spanish-language poem, but from an English-language song, written in 1969 by the great Joni Mitchell about Woodstock—an event she wasn’t able to attend, but which moved her to write one of the most beautiful poems in recent decades: We are stardust, she wrote, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Believe it or not, this—to me, at least—is also the message of the Ascension. When the disciples watched as Jesus was taken up into heaven, they weren’t watching some science-denying event that modern people need to reject. They were witnessing a message that we now know to be true: We are made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe. And when our bodies return to dust, it’s not just to the dust of the earth, but to the dust of the stars. And the older I get, the more beautiful I find this idea. It transforms my idea of the Christian message about heaven.
And transformation is the key word here. The expanding universe is filled with amazing transformations, all the time. We ourselves are a result of the transformation stars underwent billions of years ago when they died. And though all of this can be explained by science, we can also understand it biblically:
Let me reveal to you a wonderful secret, the Apostle Paul wrote at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this scripture will be fulfilled: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’
Near the end of winter, there’s a week that has three holidays in a row: Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and then what pastors refer to as Filthy Thumb Thursday. That’s the day when we scrub our hands, but can’t quite get the residue of Wednesday’s ashes off our skin—especially out from under our thumbnails. But thinking about this makes me want to have another observance on Ascension Thursday (or maybe the Sunday after). Just as, forty days before Easter, we receive ashes and hear the words, Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, I think it’d be wonderful forty days after Easter if we received glitter on our foreheads or on our hands, and hear the words, Remember that you are stardust, and to the stars you will someday return. (Of course, the dirt from the ashes only lasts a day or two… my experience with glitter is that you never quite get rid of the residue—we’d probably be dealing with it for months.)
It sounds kind of new age, doesn’t it? But if so, maybe the Feast of the Ascension is a new age holiday. Let us allow ourselves to remember that, because of our faith in Christ, we can see that heaven and earth are one, and that no matter who we are, our origins are in God. From the newest life, to those nearing death; from a shack on the outskirts of Kinshasa to Buckingham Palace, from the poorest farmer to the richest billionaire, we are stardust, we are golden.
—©2023 Sam Greening