Dust Wednesday

                               We are but ashes and shall return to dust

                                              --from a prayer in the Roman Catholic Ash Wednesday Mass

For we are dust,

formed from ground,

and to dust

we are returning.

Adam’s noble

call, a crown

to reign over

terra crust,

now is dust

raining down

upon his head

like ashes thrown

overboard in

headwind or

from a window poured

toward roadside  trees.

Branches low

with withered fruit

cleave into

wild-grass beds

in midday heat.


feeding  fire,

flames unravelling

threads that once

knit root to leaf,

all now curling

charred wisps of

acrid smoke over

whimper and gnash

as the liturgy turns

the dust to ash.   

I am intrigued by the relationship of dust and ash.  In the story of Adam's creation dust is the benign (but lifeless) ground from which God shapes him and consequently breathes life into him (Genesis 2:7). It strikes me that at its worst dust is a very neutral term, and at its best a positive reality. But after Adam's fall the curse language predicts Adam's return to dust, now carrying clear negative connotations of emptiness and disintegration.  In this latter sense dust becomes appropriately analogous to ash.  Interestingly the word ash never shows up in the curse language of Genesis 3.  We do, however,  see it associated with dust (in its negative sense) a couple of times in the Old Testament (see Genesis 18:27; Job 30:19; 42:6), and the common use of dust in the Old Testament will often carry the overtones of lifelessness and vanity.  Dust and ash have been poetically, and I think correctly, linked in the traditional burial language of the Church ("ashes to ashes, dust to dust") and in the liturgies of Ash Wednesday.  Ash, in my estimation, better crystallizes the tragic dimensions of humankind's post-fall estate.