With Ash Wednesday fast approaching, dust and ashes loom, if only in the imagination, for many, this year. As the traditional phrase for the imposition of ashes has it: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The words are based on God’s words to Adam after the eating of the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:19). On Ash Wednesday, these biblical words challenge the faithful to acknowledge their earthly roots and limits, and to remember that human life is both fragile and finite. If remembering the end of our life is one part of these words, contemplating its beginning is the other; we return to what we have always been, so Genesis claims, namely dust. Stardust, actually, although the writer of Genesis did not know that at the time. Today, planetary scientist Ashley King, whose research focusses on how our solar system evolved from a cloud of gas and dust, tells us, “It is totally 100% true: nearly all the elements in the human body were made in a star.” Yes, we are all made of stardust. In fact, our whole universe is a very “star”-dusty place.
In 2021, expanding our thinking for Ash Wednesday by rooting dust in stardust can help us to open up the deeply cosmic dimensions of life on planet earth, and of our Catholic faith as well. As Simone Weil put it memorably in her book, Awaiting God, “How can Christianity claim the right to call itself catholic if the universe itself is absent within in?”
In case you need help and inspiration with fathoming such a claim, I recommend NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day,” as part of the practice of morning prayer. And if (like me) that contemplation leads you to feeling utterly lost in the vast expanse of stellar space, I offer the following wisdom, from Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (+ 1827). One of the Rabbi’s best-known sayings was this, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a slip of paper in each. When feeling low and discouraged, one ought to reach into the right pocket, and find the note that says, “For my sake was the world created.” When, on the other hand, one feels on top of the world, one ought to reach into the left pocket, and contemplate the note that says, “I am but dust and ashes.”
Ash Wednesday clearly is a “left pocket”-day, but it may also be a good day to contemplate our cosmic origins and connections. So, on February 17th, consider your part in the whole of the universe and “Remember you are stardust.”