Today is Ash Wednesday, a day in the church where we enter into a season of penance. On this day we are given ashes on our foreheads to remind us of our deaths. As the ashes are being dispensed, the ministers quote Genesis 3:19:
This season of Lent is all about reflecting on our death, reflecting on Jesus’ death, but I’d like to give you a different reflection for at least today. As you receive your ashes, I want you to think on the quote by well-known atheist, Carl Sagan.
I don’t agree with a lot of things Carl Sagan had to say, but I love this quote from him, and I think that it is a beautiful idea to reflect on today. The quote from Genesis says that we are dust and to dust we will return, but think about that dust. Think about the atoms inside of you that make up that dust. Think about the journey they’ve been on.
Based on our latest science, we believe that all matter that currently exists was present (in a very different form) at the beginning of time at the Big Bang. That means every little particle that makes up YOU was there 13.8 billion years ago. We don’t know what happened in that very first instant. It’s not really something you can recreate in a laboratory, but in less than a second, quarks and leptons were formed. Those gathered into protons and neutrons. At the same time, electrons were forming and they were electrically drawn to the protons and neutrons. This formed the very first atoms, hydrogen atoms.
Gravity then began gently pulling on these hydrogen atoms, bringing them together until they formed these HUGE balls. Those balls got larger and larger until the gravity became too strong and it started to CRUSH the atoms. This crushing process ignited that ball of gas which was then a star through the process of fusion. Fusion, through a LOT of pressure, combines multiple hydrogens into larger atoms, different elements like carbon, nitrogen, or oxygen. Every non-hydrogen atom in your body was formed in one of these stars.
Now that the new elements were formed, these stars continued on through their life cycles, eventually dying and exploding in a super nova, sending those elements shooting out into the universe. These elements could go on to form other stars or maybe new planets. Yours found their way to planet earth, maybe helping to build planet earth when it was first coming together over 4.5 billion years ago.
That “star dust” has already been through a lot at this point, but there are still 4.5 billion years of time that your atoms had to explore and change the face of the world. Maybe they were in a volcano or down in the ocean. One of my favorite things to think about is the water in our bodies. Around 60% of our bodies is made of water, that’s H2O, two hydrogens and one oxygen. Every living cell on earth has water in it, but there are also the many giant bodies of water all over the world. All of those water molecules in your body, over those 4.5 billion years, maybe they were floating around in the ocean, exploring the depths where mankind has never been. Maybe your water molecules were frozen in an ice cap, hanging with some penguins at the south pole. Maybe they melted and found their way to some birds who could fly, and those birds flew across the world to the Amazon where the water molecules then kept a giant kapok tree and all of its over 200 feet hydrated.
Four and a half billion years is a long time to travel and be a part of so many things. This Ash Wednesday I want us to reflect on that verse from Genesis, but I want to look at it in a different light. The “dust” we come from has been through so much. It has been around since the beginning of time in so many different forms. It is truly awe inspiring to think about how many different ways the atoms that make up YOU have been a part of all of creation in so many different roles. The second part of the verse says to dust you will return. When we are buried in the earth, our molecules will then go back and continue on their amazing trip. We are only a part of their story, but how amazing is it that this “dust” that has been around since the beginning of time and has gone on such a wonderful journey would come together to create us. How marvelous that our God saw it fit to let simple energy become hydrogens, become stars, become planets, become life, become us. My heart is full thinking about it. Our God must love us so much. This is what I’ll be reflecting on this Ash Wednesday. I come from dust and to dust I return, such a blessing.