5 March 2014
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those 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 thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians: 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
I have talked over the past few months about a number of encounters and interactions that have helped me refocus some of my energy and attention on interests and passions that I had not considered for some time. One of these came at the end of the summer when I recieved an email from a colleague in the faculty of Divinity at the University of Melbourne asking if I would be the outside reader on a doctoral dissertation. The supervisor thought I would be the ideal person to evaluate it as its subject was very much in two of my great areas of interest and expertise: process theology and eco-theology (that is the intersection of environmentalism and Christian thought).
While the thesis had its problems (I did pass it on condition of certain revisions), it was a stimulating read. The author made many interesting points, including highlighting the notion that human beings are made of all the same elements as everything else in creation and that we are embedded in that creation in a way that we often do not wish to acknowledge. She reminded her readers that so often we humans wish to elevate ourselves over and above nature in ways that are destructive, forgetting our elemental, physical connection with the world in which we live. What jumped out at me when I read this, and something I in turn suggested in my comments that she consider for her revision, were the words with which we impose ashes on Ash Wednesday, “remember that thou art but dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”
We human beings are, indeed, made of the stuff of the earth. We are constituted of all the same elements as every other creature and, in fact, of every inanimate object from the wood of the table at which I sat to write this sermon to the spoon that was in front of me to my fountain pen and mobile phone beside me. We have a physical connection, an elemental, basic, physical connection with the world in which we live. We are carbon, and oxygen, and hydrogen, and all the other elements that I can’t name. We are all these things and ultimately but dust and unto dust we shall return.
This realisation is central to understanding our place in the cosmos. It should humble us, but not, perhaps in the way that you might imagine. This realisation is not meant to belittle us, make us think that we are bust grains of sand, insignificant. Quite the contrary, this real humility—litterally our connection with the earth—connects us both with the vast expanse of the cosmos and with all living creatures, with everyone we encounter. It forces us to realise that independence is a myth and that relationship is an essential and central reality of our lives. Our relationship with matter itself makes us both humble and connects us to the divine. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that mid-twentieth-century French Jesuit paleontologist, theologian, and mystic whom I find so inspiring, helps us understand this better. Teilhard would have found our physical connection to the stuff of the earth, the elements of the cosmos, the very matter of existence to be a powerful and wonderful thing. “Matter is physical exuberance,” he wrote, “ennobling contact, virile effort and the joy of growth. It attracts, renews, unites, and flowers. By matter we are nourished, lifted up, linked to everything else, invaded by life.”(1) Teilhard saw the very materials of which we are made and linked to all creation and, indeed, linked to God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ to be a expression of our vitality, energy, and interconnection with each other and with God.
God—whom we do not identify with this matter, but whom we know and see in and through it—united the divine with creation in physical form in Jesus, born of a human mother in the mess of childbirth, living in his human body, experiencing joy and suffering, dying in that body upon the cross, and in the end once again transcending creation in the triumph of love expressed in the Resurrection. Teilhard found this connection between our creation out of the matter of the cosmos and the incarnation to be of prime importance: “by virtue of the creation and, still more, of the Incarnation nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.”(2) “Nothing here below is profane,” Teilhard reminds us, even as we are made of elements and matter. Jesus not only inhabited the human form, but he partook of all the elements of which the creation consists. Nothing is profane. God is in and through the creation and in Jesus even took on that matter, that flesh.
Remember that we are dust and unto dust we shall return. We are made of the stuff of the earth and we are mortal and we shall die and our bodies shall once again return to the ground from whence we come. At the same time, that matter, that flesh that will become dust, links us with all creation and with Jesus Christ, that link between the human and the divine. That matter, that flesh that will become dust reminds us both that we are both finite and infinite, that in our bodies we are limited and subject to death, and that in our spirit, that breath of life, that spark of the image and likeness of God, we are infinite, made also of the stuff of Love.
Humility, true humility, is not feeling bad about ourselves. It is not a conscious decision to think less of ourselves and brush our achievements and accomplishments aside. Humility is not a moderation of self-love. We are called to love ourselves as well as our neighbours and indeed, there is no real, true neighbour love if we do not love ourselves, know how loved we are by God, realise how special it is to be a creature inhabiting this world and to be linked to all in all in and through the very elements of which we are constituted. True humility is this recognition that we are made of dust, made of the stuff of the earth, that we are connected with everything here on earth and throughout the cosmos, that we are not independent, free agents who can act as we please only for our own narrow self interest. True humility is knowing that we are both beloved children of God and physically finite creatures made of dust.
This is the call of Ash Wednesday, this is the call of Lent: to acknowledge who we are. We are beloved, flawed, finite creatures made of the stuff of the earth who are called to live in relationship with each other, with all creation, and with God as we cooperate in those same relationships to live lives committed to Love, the absolutely free and abundant wishing of Good for ourselves and others, for the whole of creation, the whole of the cosmos.
This coming Sunday we will hear the story of Adam and Eve and the fall. This is just another way of talking about these same ideas. That story reminds us powerfully that we are not God. Yes we humans are made in the image and likeness of God, made of the stuff of Love, given the freedom and power to give and receive Divine Love. We are not, however, identified with the infinite, transcendent reality that is God and our mortal bodies, bodies made of dust, made of the matter of the cosmos, are subject to illness, pain, suffering, and death. We are creatures, an immanent unity of soul and body, infinite in one measure, finite in another. Our souls and our Love are infinite and everlasting, our bodies are not. We are creatures called to inhabit and use and love and care for our bodies for our lifetime as we exercise care and love and respect for all creation. This is the nature of being human and it is a beautiful and wonderful thing!
The Sin in the Garden was Adam and Eve’s desire (and action to try) “to become like gods,” become perfect rather than to perfect their humanity. In perfecting our humanity, we are called to live fully into our beautiful, flawed, dusty selves, knowing how loved we are and how much we are able to love. We need to recognise that so-called perfection and perfectionism are ideals that we can not live up to and that will only cause us anguish. We are not called to be perfect. We are called to Love, using our bodies made of dust. The reality is that each of us is going to mess up, but as long as we keep trying, keep allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, remember how much we are loved and keep working to respond in love to the love around us, then we are living both to the fullest and humbly.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
3 March 2014
1. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Le Milieu Divin: an essay on the interior life (London: Collins, 1957), 90.
2. Teilhard de Chardin 1957, 37-38.
© 2014 Andrew Charles Blume