By Daniel Malakowsky
“From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
Five years ago I was preparing to join my mother and aunt in picking up the ashes of my father who had recently passed away. It had been several weeks since his memorial and death and there had been space to grieve. Still, we knew that in receiving his remains that a finality would set in in regards to the grief we had come to know so unexpectedly.
As I was leaving a morning class to proceed to join my family, I received a phone call from my wife. Nearly three years earlier she had been experiencing some fatigue and unstable blood sugars and we took her in to check for the potential of diabetes or some other related cause. Instead of discovering some underlying health issue, we were surprised to find out that she was pregnant. This phone call would be reminiscent of that time, with her asking me to pick up a home pregnancy test as many of the same symptoms were present.
So on the day that I was to take home my father’s ashes, I also found myself in the nearest supermarket buying a pregnancy test. I had 15 minutes to spare in bringing it home to my wife before I had to leave, but in those 15 minutes we discovered that we would soon be welcoming our third child into the world. Unlike the few weeks after my father’s death, there was no time to process or space to reflect on this gift, the time had come to join my family.
About an hour later we were leaving the facility where we had gathered my father’s ashes. I offered to be the one to carry them out and on the drive home. It is rather difficult to put into words the overwhelming and confusing emotions that were conflicting within me. There I was sitting in the back of a car holding my father’s ashes and all that remained of his 58 years, the vapor and mist of his life, and yet cherishing in my heart the joy of knowing a new life was forming within the womb of my wife.
For a number of years I have had the privilege of imposing ashes on the foreheads of many followers of Jesus on Ash Wednesday, reminding them that they are from dust and to dust they shall return. On that fateful day I, perhaps more than any other, felt the tension that sits between those two short clauses. Holding in my lap the fragility of life and in my heart the miracle of its existence.
We are mortal beings and the finality of our existence is beyond our control. Despite our cultural impulses towards immortality (soaring medical expenses, plastic surgery, anti-aging products, etc.), those words hold in them a truth and reality that no human being has been able to, nor will they be able to, exploit or overcome.
The words from “dust you came” remind us of both the humility and majesty of our beginning. We are not the source and foundation of life, but its recipient. That God would breathe into the dust of the ground and bring forth his likeness, those who in his image create and recreate, extending his presence throughout his created realm, reveals the dignity of our being. Still our life is dependent upon something outside of ourselves, the someone who brought us forth in love.
We are frail and mortal, and our fragile frames will once more return to the dust, relinquishing the breath that was first put within us. With that we are also eternal beings, though we are still temporally bound. Our days are numbered and we walk in perishable tents, tightly gripping the vapor and mist that ultimately is slipping through our fingers.
Embracing this truth holds within it a hidden gift though, one that allows us to hold that vapor and mist lightly, letting go of fleeting promises and vain pursuits. It is so easy to see only the present, the tangible elements of our life, and as we do they begin to spread and take anchor in our hearts. We become trapped by the temporal, locked and imprisoned by the idols of our day and unable to see beyond them, only chasing after vanity of vanities.
The gift then is one of letting go. Letting go of our control...letting go of our temporal treasures so we can receive eternal ones...letting go of our life so that we can truly find it. As we let go we discover the treasure and truth of Jesus. The One who said that if man wishes to find his life, he must first lose it, invites us into the riches of himself. It is then that our hearts can truly desire his will be done on earth as it is heaven, because we are living for heaven, receiving the incarnate love that is available to us here on earth.
Five years ago I was forced to sit in the midst of that tension. To sit with the invitation that is embodied within it. To sit with my mortality and yet the steadfast faithfulness of the One who conquered death and declares a love so bold that anyone who believes him is guaranteed not to perish, but to embrace an eternal and everlasting life.
So repent, turn from your sin, and believe in the Gospel.
photo 1 Taken in Sedona, AZ
photo 2 Taken in Mt. Lemmon, AZ