Our Relation to Dirt

By Andrew McGowan

At the beginning of Lent, many of us received the sign of ashes with the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

At that time, these words were given and heard with solemnity, even perhaps dread; mortality broke into our existence to introduce Lent as a time of reflection on the shape of our life and particularly its finitude. In that context, our connection with the earth, to the soil and the dust — let’s just say it, to dirt — is at that point solemn or even fearful.

Oddly, we use terms like soil and dirt to indicate things that damage or defile us. Yet so much depends on context. The historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith once told a story of working on a farm while a college student:

I would have to rise at about a quarter to four and fire up the wood-burning stove, heat a pan of water and lay out the soap and towels so that my boss could wash when he awoke half an hour later. Each morning, to my growing puzzlement, when the boss would step outside after completing his ablutions, he would pick up a handful of soil and rub it over his hands. (Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the Histories of Religions, 290-91)

When the callow youth eventually confronted his boss with the oddity of this gesture, he responded:

Don’t you city boys understand anything? … Inside the house it’s dirt; outside it’s earth. You must take it off inside to eat and be with your family. You must put it on outside to work and be with the animals. (Map, 291)

Likewise, our relationship with the soil is not simply negative. In the Book of Genesis, the story of creation is presented as the formation of the human person from the earth; that first human is named Adam, earth, dirt. The connection with dirt and dust is not a threat only, but a miracle; we are made of the dirt, of the same stuff, the same atoms and molecules as all other things, yet also crafted in the divine image. Striking as our mortality is, the more striking thing is that matter itself is wondrously and beautifully ordered, that we are a part of it, and we are given the extraordinary and daunting gift of its care and use. This is what our being made of dirt should mean.

And yet in human history as in Genesis, our stewardship is plagued by disobedience from the outset — our affinity with the earth is forgotten, and we treat it and each other not as wondrous creatures bound by the loving purposes of God but as exploiters and as objects. Ironically, we talk about treating people like dirt; but even dirt is the stuff of creation and itself demands a kind of reverence it rarely receives, in the industrialized world, at least.

The comic Lenny Bruce once said, “You can’t do anything with anybody’s body to make it dirty to me … you can do only one thing to make it dirty: kill it. Hiroshima was dirty.”

This unlikely source of theology speaks a deep truth, exemplified also in the story of Jesus.

In Christ, God shares in being dirt, not merely in the benign sense of material existence, but in the malign sense of rejection, defilement, and degradation. The cross of Jesus is God’s submission to our sense of the dirt; on the cross Jesus becomes dirty, a curse, as St. Paul puts it, to deliver us from sin and death.

But if Lent encouraged us to consider the limits of our dirt-based creatureliness, and the need to reconsider how we make each other and the world itself “dirty,” Easter does something different.

The resurrection of Jesus is not the defiance or refusal of the world of dirt, in the sense of our embodied existence, but its renewal and transformation. Ancient Jews expected a resurrection of the dead as sign of the end of all things; recall Martha and Jesus speaking at Lazarus’s tomb, close to the fateful events of Easter. He said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

The skepticism of many of his contemporaries to Jesus’ resurrection initially lay less in the mere possibility of resurrection as in the audacious claim that this man whose body had been cast aside as rubbish, as dirt, was in fact the new Adam. Martha reflects the widespread Jewish belief that there would be a last day, and that resurrections belonged at that time. But by rising now, Jesus is not just proclaiming his own victory over death, but the inauguration of that new world in the present, rather than only in an unknown future.

Today’s reading from the Revelation to John is part of the seer’s vision of a “new heaven and a new earth.” He describes a world transformed, even without the institutions of religion and government but still with dirt, apparently; for even though there is nothing unclean in this new heavenly Jerusalem, there is “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The resurrection of Jesus puts our earthy physicality in a new light. Jesus does not reject or transcend the dirty world — he restores its purpose, and ours. We are still made from the dust of the earth, but the earth is now also a sign of God’s promise that extends beyond the immediate fate of our embodiment. Like him, we do not escape or transcend the earth; we find instead, and even become, the signs of the new earth.

Now, baptized into his death and resurrection, we too live as members of this new earth; not to escape the old, but like him to be signs ourselves of its new hope. Baptized, we are born to this new life. In the Eucharist we receive food from the earth of this one world, transformed into the food of the new, where all are fed equally. Now every tree hints at the Tree of Life, every creature glows with the glory of God, and every human sister and brother is a miracle of divine promise, made from dirt and destined for glory.

Today is Rogation Sunday, the beginning of a week that traditionally involved prayer for seasonal weather and successful crops. This year I invite you to consider getting dirty for Rogationtide; to put your hands in the soil of a creation made good, and which is also a sign for us of a new world, where the tree of life grows. Plant a seed, or a tree; tread with care and awe on the soil of this fragile earth; love one another, feed one another. Thus we will prove followers of the risen Lord in whose body the old earth and the new meet.

The Very Rev. Andrew McGowan is dean and president of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies and Pastoral Theology.


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