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Ash Wednesday

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Today, at the Ash Wednesday Mass, a cross will be marked on our foreheads and we will hear the words ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.’ The first man was formed from the dust of the earth, moulded by God like a potter moulding clay. God then breathed into the first man’s nostrils and ‘man became a living soul’ (Genesis 2:7). God created the first human beings so that they might live in friendship with him and enjoy his abundant gifts, symbolized by the harmony and fertility of Eden. Yet these humans that were brought to life by the breath of God rebelled against the God of life and so death entered the world. The earth that had formed Adam was cursed. Now it would bring forth thorns and thistles, and be farmed only with much effort and labour. Adam is told:

In the sweat of your face you shall eat your bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19) 

Yet despite this rebellion, God promised to overcome our sin. First God made a covenant with Noah; He pledged that the Earth that had brought forth Adam, that had been cursed by Adam’s sin and polluted by the shedding of Abel’s innocent blood, would no longer be cursed. Instead Noah’s descendants were blessed and commanded to go and be fruitful (Genesis 8:20 - 9:1). Next God made a covenant with Abraham. God promised that Abraham’s barren wife would bear a child that would continue a line that would be so fruitful that his descendants would outnumber the stars of heaven and the sand on the seashore. To this people would be given a holy land in which they would dwell for ever (Genesis 17:8). God came closer still in the covenant with Moses, dwelling among the people as a life-giving presence in the tabernacle as they journeyed through the barren desert. After Israel had taken possession of the land promised to Abraham, God made a covenant with David in which he promised that a temple would be built: there would be a holy place – the temple, in a holy city – Jerusalem, in a holy land. 

We see in the history of Israel, then, the gradual undoing of Adam’s sin. Jeremiah saw a parable of the history of Israel in the work of the potter, patiently moulding a pot from clay, beginning again and again each time the pot went wrong. We read: 

O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter had done? Says the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potters hand, so are you in my hand O house of Israel. (Jeremiah 18: 5) 

The remoulding of Israel was consummated in Jesus Christ, the New Adam. In his resurrection he conquered the death that entered the world though Adam. Through the temple which is his body, we gain a greater intimacy with God even than our first parents had. After his Resurrection, Jesus breathed on his disciples and so handed on to them his Holy Spirit (John 20:22). Once again, human being lived by the breath of God, this time the very life of God itself. 

Thus St. Paul declares us to be ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 6:19), yet we ‘carry this treasure in jars of clay’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). We are still clay, we are still dust, and we will return to dust: yet the life of God which we share is a pledge that at the general resurrection we will rise to fullness of life and eternal happiness with God. 

Our individual life story, our personal history, then, is Israel’s history. Like Adam we have sinned, yet like Israel God has patiently remoulded us back to himself, and like the apostles Jesus has breathed on us and we have received the Spirit: a gift that we carry in fragile vessels, always utterly dependent on God. Today we remind ourselves how precious this gift is, and how wondrous it is that we should share in the life of God.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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