6. To Dust You Shall Return (Genesis 3:19)

Nature speaks to us about the beauty and power of God. But it can’t tell us what God is thinking, or what God’s purpose is. Nature does provide signs of God’s care:

Throughout history even to the present day, there is found among different peoples a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature and the events of human life. At times there is present even a recognition of a supreme being … This awareness and recognition results in a way of life that is imbued with a deep religious sense.

(Second Vatican Council, On Non-Christian Religions)

Something makes us feel we are made for life, not death. We want our life to have meaning; we yearn to make sense of it all. But nature sends us mixed signals, and it can’t assure us that our yearnings for life and love and meaning are going to be fulfilled.

We can only know God’s intentions if God chooses to reveal more than what is revealed through nature.

Something also tells us that we need to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, and that our choices matter. We have a sense of being accountable. But nature can’t assure us that our wrong-doings are not going to be held against us. Some practices of natural religions suggest that their adherents are never really sure how they stand with God.

We can only know God’s intentions if God chooses to reveal more than what is revealed through nature. That is why we look to where God has become involved in people’s lives. The signs of God’s saving power in the lives of people are the signs of what God is doing in human history. In this way, time and history are revealed as having a goal and a purpose. The meaning of our lives, and of the cosmos, too, is to be found there.

For those who tried to find meaning just from the cosmos, time was the never-ending cycle of its seasons. The myths were as close as they could get to meaning.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should be mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

(W.H. Auden, Their Lonely Betters)

The revealed faith of ancient Israel was different from cosmic and natural religion. Theirs was the story of God’s involvement with people “chosen” to know God’s purpose. Yet, they, too, had to learn that they could not bring about the fulfillment of their own deepest yearnings:

As a woman about to give birth writhes and cries out in pains so were we in your presence, O Lord. We conceived and writhed in pain giving birth to wind. Salvation we have not achieved for the earth, the inhabitants of the world cannot bring it forth.

(Isaiah 26:17-18)

Superstition also looks, in vain, to the cosmos for the meaning of human events:

When you come into the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abominations of the peoples there. Let there not be found among you anyone who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, nor a fortune-teller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner, or caster of spells, nor one who consults ghost and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead. Anyone who does such things is an abomination to the Lord ....You, however, must be faithful towards the Lord, your God…The Lord, your God, will raise up a prophet like me from your own kinsmen, to him you shall listen.

(Deuteronomy 18:9-13, 15)

God’s involvement in their history revealed a God who was faithful to them, even though they were unfaithful and unworthy. This double experience - their own unworthiness and God’s love - led them to a profound hope; a hope that seemed greater than every setback. It led them to expect someone that God would send to fulfill their yearning for life and meaning.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing ... For a child is born to us, a Son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-hero, Father-forever, Prince of Peace.

(Isaiah 9:2-3, 6)

Jesus’ coming and his faithfulness would do what we could not do for ourselves.

For Practice

  • Spend some time at a cemetery thinking about those who once lived as you do now.
  • Read and reflect on Isaiah 40:1-11.

For Prayer

To you, Lord, I cried 
to my God I made appeal: 
“What profit would my death be, 
my going to the grave? 
Can dust give you praise or proclaim your truth?”

The Lord listened and had pity.
The Lord came to my help.
For me you have changed
my mourning into dancing,
you removed my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy.

So my soul sings psalms to you unceasingly.
O Lord, my God, I will thank you forever.

Psalm 30:8-12