Ashes and Dust
“You are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
In our original set of devotionals, Faith and History, I opened with a reflection on Genesis 1-2, considering what it might mean for historians to be good stewards of Creation. I suggested that we “till . . . and keep” the past (Gen. 2:15), a notion that often occurs to me when I walk into a library or archive, where the very aroma of aging books and papers reassures me that the past is never completely lost. Evidence and memory survive the passage of time, and so my work as a historian is possible.
But it turns out that “old book smell” itself hints at what we’re working against as students of the past. As paper, ink, glue, and binding material decompose, they release pungent chemicals called volatile organic compounds. The fragrance of history, then, is the odor of decay, an olfactory offshoot of what’s left of the past disintegrating into mere particles.
That echoes Genesis, too. For despite our best efforts to tend the history of God’s most amazing creatures, the next chapter in that book reminds us that human lives and what they leave behind are inevitably transient. “You are dust,” God tells Adam, “and to dust you shall return.”
Often that happens slowly. Sometimes in the blink of an eye.
In one British study, 86% of participants described “old book smell” as smoky, which hints how even carefully preserved historical evidence can not only break down gradually over time, but be consumed by flames. There’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to the dozens of libraries and museums that have lost hundreds of thousands of books, documents, and artifacts to fires. Whether Mayan codices burned by zealous 16th century missionaries or Iraqi libraries torched in recent years by ISIS, what’s left of the past is so easily reduced to ashes.
So on Ash Wednesday, when Christians participate in a worship service meant to confront us with our own mortality, I’m also reminded of the sacred necessity and near-impossibility of the historian’s calling: to preserve, analyze, and interpret the lives of the dead . . . even as their pasts crumble beneath us.
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” our pastors tell us as they rub ashen crosses on our foreheads. But they don’t stop there. Having quoted the biblical account of sin’s origin, the litany continues with sin’s remedy: “Repent, and believe the Gospel.” And so we are sent into Lent, the forty days when we contemplate what we have thought, said, and done (and left undone) rather than loving God with all of our selves and loving their neighbors as ourselves.
That aspect of this day and season has implications for history as well. As this Lenten series continues, I anticipate that we’ll hear how historians engage in confessing sin and lamenting its effects. We’ll be prompted to consider how our discipline can help its students to recognize and repent of sins personal and collective.
But I expect that we’ll also find reasons to be inspired and hopeful as we encounter the flawed, remarkable people of the past. And as we draw closer to the cross and the empty tomb during Holy Week, perhaps history will even prepare us to welcome the good news of Jesus Christ.
I hope that you join us on that journey.
Gracious God, out of your love and mercy you breathed into dust the breath of life, creating us to serve you and our neighbors. Call forth our prayers and acts of kindness, and strengthen us to face our mortality with confidence in the mercy of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 26)
Chris Gehrz (PhD, Yale) is professor of history and chair of the History Department at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN. His next book, Charles Lindbergh: A Religious Biography of America’s Most Infamous Pilot (Eerdmans) is due out this August.