“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” With sobering words and ashen smudges on our foreheads, Christians worldwide were ushered last week into the Lenten season. In an age marked by increasingly dire signs that the earth itself is suffering from multiple afflictions, even unto death, we are challenged this Lent to consider the meaning of Jesus’ passion and resurrection for a stricken planet.
Remember that to dust you shall return. The wages of human sin is death (Rom. 6:23), as Paul declares, and not only our own degeneration, but the unnatural decay of the whole groaning creation (8:21-22). Today, this unwelcome message comes to us from the scientific community, as we hear reports almost daily that the earth and every form of life it sustains is in grave peril and that the great ecological crises of our time are ‘anthropogenic’ (i.e. caused by human activity). We are being forced to confess that our own greed, sloth, and prideful ignorance is directly responsible for climatic changes due to global warming, the poisoning of rivers, lakes, and ocean waters, the pollution of air, the rapid loss of farmable land, the destruction of wilderness, and the mass extinction of plant and animal species. Nothing could be more appropriate this Lenten season, therefore, than for us honestly and humbly to lament, both to our Lord and to his beloved Creation: “Oh sacred head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down…Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain” (B. Clairvaux).
Remember that you are dust. We human beings, like all living creatures, originate from the earth. As we read in the second creation story, we are clay/soil enlivened by the breath of God (Gen. 2:7). In and though our earthly bodies, we share in the great community of creation with all other forms of life, sentient and non-sentient, that are fashioned by our common Creator. As ecologists have affirmed for years, what happens to the earth and its creatures, happens to us. It was in and through an earthly body, of course, that God became human and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14). God’s own life is intimately wedded to our own, not only as enlivening spirit, but also as terrestrial flesh. And what we will proclaim on Easter morning with shouts of hallelujah is that what has happened in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is what will happen for us and for the entire creation! “For behold, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” so “be glad and rejoice” (Is. 65:17-18). To be clear, the hope of Easter is not an opiate for inaction. For the church is an earthly body of people called to be a tangible witness amidst this present age to the glory of the new creation that is to come. In fact, no call could be more urgent this Lenten season, and in the seasons and years to come, than for Christians to participate in the great work of healing the earth through personal lifestyle changes, the conversion of others to ways that lead to life, and the transformation of our common public life. It is in so doing that we will “practice resurrection” (W. Berry).
Rev. Eberhart is a professor at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary