Remember You Are Fertile Soil, and to Fertile Soil You Shall Return
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One of the great joys of learning Biblical languages is getting to know the range of meanings for words that we so often trap into tightly constrained words in English. One lesson that I will never forget is that the “dust” from which the first human was made could just as easily have been translated as “dirt” or “fertile soil.” Take a minute or even a day and reflect on the difference that makes!
Yesterday I was invited to participate in the Ash Wednesday service at Chimwemwe Anglican Church, which butts up against Chimwemwe Presbyterian Church where I usually worship. Rev. Rogers Banda, my backdoor neighbor in MEF, was recently called to serve this Anglican congregation. I was thrilled to attend, especially because somewhere in my mind I have this idea that “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” comes from an old Anglican liturgy. I don’t know if this is true, but it is there in my mind. In short, I felt like I would be celebrating in the very heart of liturgical Ash Wednesday.
Chimwemwe Anglican Church has one of those buildings that has been under construction for over twenty years, being built panoono panoono (slowly, or bit by bit) as we like to say in Bemba. With drafty holes throughout the facade and an unfinished concrete floor, then, we thought it would be no problem to burn the palms there inside the building, sheltered from the rain outside. Of course the smoke billowed and filled the entire sanctuary. Luckily by the (late) time people finally started trickling in there was just a thin cloud remaining. Let me tell you, that smelly palm smoke was perhaps the most powerful incense I have ever encountered! It was the fragrance of dried palms that have seen a year of joy and struggle in Zambia, that were waved with Hosannas at the triumphal entry and then with shouts of condemnation at the trials. It was the fragrance of ashes that would be placed on our foreheads to remind us of our need to repent, of our call to participate in the Passion, of our own mortality. Really, I think Ash Wednesday has the richest symbolism of any of the celebrations of our faith.
While pondering my own repentance and mortality throughout the Bemba service, my eyes kept being drawn to what stood before the altar. As mentioned, it was raining outside and the under-construction building facade was quite porous. It so happened that there was a leak just in front of the altar. In someone’s stroke of brilliance, a potted plant was placed underneath the water flow. A problem that could lead to the slow erosion of the entire structure was transformed into a source of nourishment for life.
So, surrounded by smoke, ashes, and death was a plant growing in fertile soil being watered through the mechanism of shoddy construction. There are probably volumes that could be written on the range of symbolic meaning there could be in this tableau. I am still trying to wrap my mind, heart, and soul around it. For now I will focus on one simple reflection.
God created us from fertile soil and it is to fertile soil that we will return. The same soil that nourishes all of life is the basis of our anatomy. And when we return to fertile soil, we enrich it all the further. As the living, breathing, walking incarnation of Creation, I am sure that Jesus knew this in the depths of his bones as he journeyed into Jerusalem. So, even though he asked for the cup to be taken away from him, he accepted a death that would bring life—specifically life that would forever prevail over systems of death like the empire that killed him. And this life persists within us, to the point of mechanizing our flaws so that nourishment can come even through them.
Remember you are fertile soil, and to fertile soil you shall return.