Coronavirus seems to be spreading further around the world, with more towns in Europe being isolated and schools nearby sending students home, some even closing to be deep cleaned. I have been struggling over the past few days with a chesty cough and the hypochondriac in me wondered if it might be Coronavirus. It turns out, probably not, just a chesty cough. Nonetheless these contagious diseases remind us that we are mortal and Ash Wednesday is a day that we particularly confront this stark reality. We ‘remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return’. Last year’s palm crosses have been burnt and turned into ash so that it can be used to mark our foreheads with a sign and reminder of our mortality. As this is done we hear those words:
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
This is not a counsel of despair and gloom, but one of hope and faith. This dust comes from God and is held in being by God, so there is hope, there is joy.
This Lent we are following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, by Ruth Valerio ‘Saying Yes to Life‘. This is a series of reflections on the first Genesis Creation story and in place of the set Old Testament Reading each week we will use the passage from that story on which the coming week’s chapter is based. I am going to base my sermons on these too. We begin today with God creating.
Despite being the first chapter of the bible, this story is not the oldest passage in the bible. It dates from around the 6th century BC, when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. It is a counter to the creation myths they heard there and so while there are similarities there are also great differences and one in particular.
One of those creation myths comes from the Babylonian text, the Enuma Elish. This tells of gods in a cosmic struggle. In that squabbling Marduk slays Tiamat cutting her body in two and out of one half creating the heavens and the other the earth with the great rivers of the Euphrates and Tigris flowing form her eyes and her breasts made into the hills. The blood of another defeated god was used to make human beings. In the Enuma Elish, creation is the product of a cosmic struggle, wrought in violence and that conflict is hardwired in. It is a world of battling and struggle, of the strongest defining the terms.
While there are similarities, the story of the Hebrew bible is that creation is planned and purposed by God, the one God, who is the sole Creator of all things. It flows from loving purpose and desire, not conflict and violence. When we remember that we are dust, we remember that we are dust that comes from God’s loving purpose, willed and intentioned. This is a very different narrative.
As we journey through Lent we do so in faith and hope and trust, for we are dust willed into being by a loving God who calls us to be faithful to Christ.
Based on sermon notes for Ash Wednesday, Peterborough Parish Church, 26th February 2020