Several years ago I took part in an Ash Wednesday service at the Episcopal church I regularly attend in Middletown, CT. This has not been my practice in recent years, although I found the service unexpectedly moving. Perhaps I have reached a time of life when reminders of one's mortality take on a deeper significance. Ash Wednesday, like Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is a time for sober reflection on just how far we have strayed from the image of God in which we are created. As ashes are applied to your forehead, the priest intones, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The entire liturgy turns on these words, just as our life does. The words were originally directed to Adam, whose name is a play on the Hebrew word for earth. According to the story in the Bible, the hapless Adam was formed from the dust of the ground and lived for a brief time in paradise. Then he blew it, and the rest is human nature.
The story is actually much older than the biblical account. According to ancient Sumerian legend, the earthly paradise was called Dilmun, and the water god Enki molded mankind from clay in the image of the gods. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the first man was created on a potter's wheel by the god Khnum. In the Babylonian version, the gods fashioned men from earth mixed with the blood of the god Bel, who cut off his own head. The Maoris of New Zealand believe the first man was made of red clay mixed with the blood of the god Tiki. Juok, the creator god of the Shilluk people in Egypt, traveled the earth, fashioning different races of men with different colored clay. Certain West African tribes in Togoland believe that God makes good men out of good clay and bad men out of bad clay. According to their story, the first man and the first woman took one look at each other and laughed.
As J. G. Frazier and others have documented, the essential elements of this same creation story are widely dispersed throughout the world. This suggests either that they have a common origin or, more likely, that they are deeply embedded in the collective unconscious. Long before we framed our sacred texts, tribal people were telling themselves that they had been formed in God's image from earth or clay. Why is the telling of this story so important to our understanding of who we are?
You are dust, and to dust you shall return. The Ash Wednesday liturgy turns on this reminder of our own mortality. But that is only part of who we are. Adam became a living being when God breathed his spirit into a lump of clay. God's spirit animates us, yet we are obsessed with what happens to the lump of clay. If we look to the earth, we see that it continually brings forth life and is continually regenerated by organic matter that was once life. Our mistake is in identifying with the leaf that falls from the tree rather than the tree that lives on with its roots planted deep in the earth.
J. G. Frazer, Folklore in the Old Testament