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Hallo again to all.

'Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.'

In most Anglican services on Ash Wednesday, the presider offers those or similar words while imposing ashes on a worshipper's forehead. The phrase comes from Genesis 3:19 and is part of God's proclamation to Adam and Eve after the apple episode.

Next week Lent begins. In a bit more than a week we will celebrate Shrove Tuesday and then Ash Wednesday and then we will be in Lent. Most of us will attend an Ash Wednesday service, usually a mid-day or early-evening Eucharist, at which those words will be spoken while ashes are put on our forehead. We've never thought it shocking that we will one day become dust; our immortal soul separates from our mortal body, which is then no longer needed. Different cultures and faiths have different traditions for disposing of the bodies of the departed, but even if the word 'dust' isn't exactly descriptive in a particular case, it's a good metaphor.

Some years ago, well into the season of Pentecost (ordinary time), we were walking in a large city from a train station to a museum and came face to face with posters and teasers for a museum exhibit called 'Body Worlds'. The posters showed (and promised that the exhibition contained) plastinated cadavers displayed in various stages of dissection and in various poses that a living person might have.

We found this exhibit and its promotional materials to be profoundly disturbing, and crossed the street, to walk on the other side, as far away from it as we could be without turning back to find a new route. Brrr.

We have no trouble with visiting graveyards, mortuaries, columbaria, or even visiting Lenin's tomb in Moscow. We've watched a friend who was a first-year medical student working on dissection of a cadaver as part of an anatomy class. We actually find graveyards to be soothing places where we feel a stronger bond with those buried and with their Maker. But we were traumatized by the very thought of almost every aspect of that Body Worlds exhibit.

With the exception of the pagan dictator who was Vladimir Lenin, who had at best an adversarial relationship with God, every one of the doesn't-distress-us bodies either was already dust, or was going to be given the chance of returning to dust according to scripture. Bodies used by medical schools are cremated normally, and thus do return to dust.

We spent days trying to analyse and understand our complex emotional distress at the Body Worlds exhibit. Finally we understood it: the Ash Wednesday proclamation is not a threat but a promise. Returning to dust is a privilege, and the plastination process precludes that privilege.

See you next week. And when on Ash Wednesday you receive your ashes, we encourage you to understand it as a promise from God that you will, indeed, have the honour of returning to the dust from which you came.

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4 February 2018

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