Right in the middle of the excruciating Book of Job, as long-suffering Job continually debates his friends and maintains his innocence before God, there is an interlude in which Job pauses, oddly, to describe the condition of those who make their livelihood under the earth, mining its resources. Job says, “Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from ore. Miners penetrate darkness, and search out to the farthest bound the ore in gloom and deep darkness. They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation; they are forgotten by travelers. They sway suspended, remote from all people.”
It is a terrifying soliloquy. It speaks of futility, of the way in which human beings seek to shine light into impenetrable darkness, to plumb the depths of life, love, and knowledge, only to discover how feeble our light is, and how quickly it is extinguished, and we are forgotten.
Last week I watched the Indy film entitled Don’t Blink, about a group of friends who travel to a remote winter lodge and begin disappearing. There are no monsters, no serial killers, no secret trap doors. The characters simply vanish, one by one. They are, in the words of one character, erased. And the movie is the more unsettling by that fact. It taps into a primal anxiety, that when we are no more, we truly are no more. One character says to the others remaining, as the terror reaches a fevered pitch, “Don’t you get it? We’re all going to disappear, and then everything we’ve ever done, it doesn’t matter.” We become like Job’s miner, swaying alone in the abyss, forgotten in darkness.
Writer Andrew Carroll tells of his visit to remote and uninhabited Hart Island in Long Island Sound.[i] Hart Island is, in effect, a one hundred acre cemetery. Carroll reveals that “there are approximately 850,000 bodies interred on Hart Island, each one of them unclaimed or unwanted…Suicide victims pulled from the Hudson River. Homebound elderly found dead of starvation or heat stroke in their apartments. Stillborn infants whose parents couldn’t afford to bury them. Teenage runaways beaten to death. Homeless addicts who overdosed in condemned buildings. New York is where they all happened to die, but they came from across this country and around the world. Hart Island…is the largest potter’s field in the United States.”
These are, in real life, the nameless, the forgotten, the erased. Carroll continues, “At Hart Island, bodies are buried for twenty-five years, and then the bones are dug up and bunched together to make room for the newcomers,” where they become but dust and ashes.
That is, after all, what Ash Wednesday is all about. We are reminded of our fragility, our transience and finitude, the fact that we came from, and will return to, the depths of the earth. That we are but dust and ashes. But is that all? Is Ash Wednesday ultimately a morose day, intended to accentuate our nothingness?
The twenty-eighth chapter of Job doesn’t end with the miner swaying alone in the abyss. Job continues, “As for the earth, out of it comes bread; underneath it is turned up as by fire. Its stones are the place of sapphires, and its dust contains gold.”
How do we make sense of that juxtaposition? How do we reconcile Job’s lament that we go down into the earth, decaying, forgotten, unto dust, with the conviction that this selfsame dust is also characterized by sapphires and gold?
The reconciliation comes when we recognize, in faith, that though we are dust, we are not merely so. We are the dust into which has been breathed the Spirit of God. That Spirit infuses us with the sapphires and gold of God’s very image, and God’s image, friends, can never be erased.
We will, indeed, go down into the earth. The day will come—soon—when we no longer share in this life. But even in death, we do not sway in the abyss, remote and alone. The abyss is not real, or, at least, it is not final. When we go down into the earth, it is for a season, not for eternity. And even then, we reside in God until such time that the earth is turned up, and the gold will shine through our resurrected being with a light that the darkness cannot overcome.
Ash Wednesday is, indeed, about our finitude, but its purpose is not to declare our futility or worthlessness. Its purpose, like the Book of Job’s, is to remind us of our utter and absolute dependence on the God who creates us to shine like diamonds in God’s very image. Our lives are not futile. We are not worthless. You and I are, like the gems and gold that reside in the dust of the earth, invaluable.
In the very center of the stark loneliness on Hart Island, there stands a ten-foot stone cross, a sentry over those million men, women, and children who have been buried namelessly over the decades. The base of the cross quotes Matthew’s Gospel, saying, “He calleth his own by name.”
[i] Carroll, Andrew. Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, pp. 395-405.