"Night in the Desert"
Today is Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar – millions of people all over the globe will have a smudge of ash placed on their foreheads today as they hear the words:
Remember you are dust,
and unto dust you shall return
When I was growing up, I used to think of “Ash Wednesday” as a pretty gloomy day - all that talk about returning to dust, accompanied by an underlying threat that we all had better “get our act together” and repent of our sins if we expected to go to heaven when we died.
I must honestly say that I now have a completely different take about the “dust” of Ash Wednesday. Today when I am reminded that I am made of dust, I reflect upon the fact that the dust of which we are all made is literally stardust. The iron in our blood, calcium in our bones and the very oxygen we breathe are in fact the dust and ashes of stars that lived and died long ago. The thought of being made of “dust” reminds me that each of us is part of something far bigger than our own individual self.
On Ash Wednesday, the prospect of returning to the dust is not a threat at all; rather it is a hopeful promise. Everything dies but nothing ever stops being. Each of us is part of the One and at death we return to the One – nothing gloomy about that.
I am reminded of something Zen Master,Thich Nhat Hanh, once taught:
You are made of water.
if you remove the water, there is no ‘you’ left.
You are made of earth.
If you remove the element of earth, there is no ‘you’ left.
You are made of air.
If you remove the air from you, there is no ‘you’ left.
You are made of light.
Without the sunlight you cannot survive.
You are made of stars.
On a clear night you can look up and see that you are in the stars above.
It seems to me that this teaching of a Zen Master may well have captured the essence of the Christian meaning of Ash Wednesday, a message that is not only directed to observant Christians who walk around with a spot of dust on their foreheads on this day.
As I see it, “Ash Wednesday” offers a message that can be universally embraced by every single human being. It reminds us all that we are more than our tiny little selves. We are not isolated separated individuals but rather we are all part of something far more cosmic and transcendent.
There is a saying attributed to the Buddha:
I saw stars within me, sun rising and sunset, full-moon nights-
everything within me, not without me.
It was my boundary that had been keeping them out,
now the boundary is no more and everything has fallen in.
Now I am the whole.
The dust of Ash Wednesday reminds me that we all came from “God,” we all abide in “God” and we all return to “God.” Today is a day when all of us regardless of our faith, beliefs or spiritual paths might smudge some ash on our foreheads and walk around reminding one another of this profound and universal truth:
Remember you are stardust,
and unto the stars you shall return.