Remember You Are Dust

Today is Ash Wednesday. It was also our first work day on this trip, and the whole lot of us went to the work site for the church. We planned to work all morning, break at noon, have a very brief Ash Wednesday service for ourselves and the local workers who joined us, then eat lunch and then get back to work for the afternoon.

If you want to hear God laugh, just tell him your plans.

The materials we needed for the day’s work hadn’t been delivered when we arrived in the morning. As we were waiting, Deacon Concepcion, who is one of our good friends and ministry leaders in the area, arrived with the new priest, Padre Hector. We hadn’t known they had a new priest. So it was a joyful round of introductions as we became acquainted with Padre Hector and learned that he has been the priest for the Maya Convocation since September. We also learned that he was planning for a real Ash Wednesday service, complete with Holy Communion and much of the Santa Maria Virgen congregation in attendance. I had brought ashes. Hector and Concepcion would get the bread and wine. The community would provide musicians. And I wouldn’t have to stumble through the four prayers I had tried to learn to pronounce in Spanish! – instead, Padre Hector would lead the service and I would impose ashes and assist with Communion. An all around wonderful plan.

At the appointed time, we gathered in the church building at Santa Maria Virgen. It is a building now; the last time I’d been here to see it, it was a set of foundations and a few rebar-and-concrete towers standing up and indicating where walls would one day be. Still, it isn’t much of a building yet: it is a shell, with walls and windows and a roof, and the first hints of a second story. But the interior is not finished, the walls are bare block, the floor is packed earth, there is no electricity or water. But considering how it looked the last time I saw it, I thought the building was beautiful indeed. And with some plastic chairs set out in a big semicircle around the rough wooden table to serve as an altar, and the people of the congregation gathering to pray, the building grew more beautiful with each moment.

And then a pickup truck arrived to deliver a load of sand and gravel that we would use to mix concrete for the next stage of building. We began our opening hymn, guitars and voices raised in song, to the accompaniment of shovels banging against the pickup’s cargo box and loads of grit thumping and slithering onto the sandpile growing just outside the church window.

As I was rehearsing in my mind how to say the Ash Wednesday phrase “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” in Spanish – Eres polvo, y al polvo volverás – it occurred to me that the dust of our service and the sand for construction had a lot in common.

According to Genesis, we are dust, dirt, soil, raw matter that God breathed into and brought to life. We are not alive because of some kind of accomplishment or achievement of our own, but because God in love organizes the atoms and molecules and carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and so on, so that together they make us living beings. Life is not some kind of extra “stuff” that gets injected into our matter and makes us alive, but life is an interactive relationship between our components that organizes us into living systems. And God delights in making relationships. That’s how God creates. The dust of Ash Wednesday is a reminder that we are creatures who exist because of relationship.

And we, in turn, are at work right now organizing sand and gravel and cement and cinder blocks into relationships that will constitute them as a church building. We are gifted and graced by God to exist because of life-giving relationships, and in turn we can be co-creators with God to bring other elements together into creative and faithful relationships, too. Our bodies and the church building we are bodily working on are both dust into which a spirit of life has been breathed.

And, I thought further as the service went on, we are all of us being organized and brought together into the Body of Christ. This building is not the Church; this building is a place for the people to gather, and it is the people who are the Church. And the people are the Church because God breathes the Holy Spirit into and among us, so that our individual gifts and needs and prayers and sins and forgiveness and hope are brought together into a synergy that is so much more than any one of us alone, and that carries on the love of Jesus himself into action in the world. Each individual person among us is like a grain of dust, scooped up into a handful by God and formed into a body into which God breathes the breath of Christ.

You are dust, and to dust you shall return. Eres polvo, y al polvo volverás. Each one of us, and every bit of us, is gathered up into a Life that is bigger than our own, and by Whose gift we are brought into eternal Love. That was God’s message to me today in a smudge of ash, and in a pile of sand.