Dust and Ashes – A Reflection on Wednesday

On Wednesday, many Christians attended the service for the Imposition of Ashes.   Their foreheads were marked with ashes and they were reminded that from dust they were made and to dust they shall return.

We are, in fact, made of dust.  In the beginning of the universe atoms of hydrogen were formed, dust.  As the universe expanded and cooled the dust began to clump together.  The clumps grew until they were large enough that their mutual gravitational attraction was so strong that nuclear fusion reactions started and stars lit up.  As some of those primordial stars exhausted their hydrogen fuel they began to fuse ever heavier elements and then blew apart.  They were supernovae.  In their fiery death explosions they created new clouds of dust.  Those clouds of dust repeated the process and the next generation of stars, containing greater concentrations of heavier elements than their predecessors, were formed.  This process has continued, eventually fusing every element in the Periodic Table.  All of the atoms of all of the elements were created from clouds of dust, ashes of the supernovae.  So, it is true. From dust you were made.

And, to dust you shall return. That happy aggregation called you and your life, is a unique, complex relationship among billions and billions of atoms. You, your consciousness and life, arise solely from the relationship and not from its constituent atomic bits. None of your atoms ever has been or ever will be alive. And, your bundle of atoms shall, in the cosmological blink of an eye, disassemble.  The atoms that participated in making you and your life shall go on to become other things.  Some may become soil of the Earth.  Some may, billions of years from now, drift again in a dust cloud in space.  None of them shall be improved or diminished by having been you.  Your life wrought no change upon them.

So, to what purpose is this complexity?  I don’t see much evidence elsewhere that things become complex to no purpose.  Nature doesn’t seem to have much use for complexity without purpose. For that reason, I find the explanation that life is a coincidence, inevitable from an infinite creation of every possibility, very unsatisfactory.  That answer boils down to it’s complex because it’s possible.  It’s circular reasoning.   For me, science doesn’t answer all questions.

Science can describe the relationship of my atoms in detail, its functions, causes and effects.  But, I don’t think science shall ever answer the question of why the relationship exists.  It’s really not a scientific question.  Any answer to “why?” cannot be proved or disproved by observation, calculation or logic. If the answer to “Why?” is not yielded up by science, then what?

I have explored my answer in “For God so loved . . . that He gave Himself.”  My exploration of the question has led me into the Holy Mystery of Ash Wednesday, Lent and Easter. Richard Rohr wrote that God needs images.  He speaks of us looking back at God with the very same eyes with which God first gazed upon us.  My image is of the face of a newborn gazing, for the first time, into his mother’s. It’s the gaze that melts the coldest calculations. For me, it’s what God demonstrated for us in Jesus. In the Scriptures I keep hearing: God loves you, you need only to love back. God loves me, even when I deny Him and nail Him to a cross!  Even then, God is waiting for me to return His loving gaze.

For me, the answer to “Why?” arises from the same source as life: relationship.  My answer to “Why?” is so that we can be loved and return love, so that we can return God’s loving gaze. All that complexity created a vessel for that bit of God consciousness that looks back at God and recognizes itself. My answer to the question “Why?” is: for the sake of love.


2 responses to “Dust and Ashes – A Reflection on Wednesday

  1. Rick, that’s beautiful. I sometimes struggle with the difference between my understandings of science and my instinct for things spiritual. Your answer is one I also have come to. And that is predicated, for me, on the universe’s–or God’s–need for self-awareness in order to realize love. My “why” is the idea of becoming aware of God so that we may then reflect love.

  2. Dad, you sometimes ask where I get my ability to be profound, to which I respond: Do you read the things you write?! I’m looking forward to the day you give up on law and start using more of your time to write like this. I especially loved: “That happy aggregation called you and your life…”

    Well written.

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