The film Toy Story tells of Woody and Buzz Lightyear and the collection of toys in the house of boy named Andy. Woody, a sheriff action figure, reigned as the most popular toy in the house until Buzz Lightyear, super hero of the galaxy, arrived. Chaos ensued.
Woody knew the limits of being a toy. He froze in position - lifeless - as soon as a human entered the room. These limits defined what he could or would do. Buzz arrived oblivious to his limits, in fact oblivious to even being a toy. On a mission to save the galaxy from the evil emperor Zurg, Buzz Lightyear could not be bound by any rules. At least not on this planet.
My kids came along at just the right moment for the Toy Story series of movies. We watched them for years. The toys each have “catch-phrases.” At one point Woody gets his pull string stuck and, when he attempts to move away, he inadvertently said, “There’s a snake in my boots.”
This got my family talking. If one of us said a comment too often, the others would say “that’s on your pull string.”
Our faith has sayings on a pull-string too. We here one of the oldest ones this evening, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We’ll hear those words later tonight as ashes go on our foreheads: “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
These words call us to remember our limits - we shall die - but also offer a promise of grace. It’s easier to hear the limit. The words almost sound like Woody’s advice to Buzz, “You are a toy.” The reminder cuts through our denials and forced naivete about ourselves so that we recognize the limits of our lives.
Can this be anything but depressing? Buzz Lightyear nearly collapsed under the weight of discovering his own toyness; shall discovering our mortality immobilize us too?
The reminder that we are dust comes from the story of Adam and Eve. The first couple of the Bible lived in the Garden of Eden, a place of ease and luxury. God gave them one limit: don’t eat of this tree. Otherwise, they had complete run of the place.
In this idyllic place the snake convinced Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Disaster! God made Adam and Eve leave the garden. At that point God said, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3: 19).
It sounds awful: a divine judgment, one which throws mortality in their face.
But responding this way ignores how these same words occur at the beginning of the story. [see Walter Brueggemann for more on this point.] God created the Adam, as scripture says, “from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2: 7). We could say that trouble began for Adam and Eve at precisely that moment they forgot they were dust; the reminder was not a punishment but a restoration.
We can see this if we return to the story: Adam and Eve were created by God and given the command to till the Garden of Eden, freely eating of any of the fruit, except for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Humanity is given a vocation – tilling; abundance – freedom to eat; and a limitation – but not of this tree. Chaos broke in when the snake encouraged Adam and Eve to eat of the forbidden tree so “you will be like God.” Here was the paradigmatic sin: humans ignored what God gave in an attempt to vault themselves into God-likeness. It quickly went bad; they are not enlightened but instead filled with shame and God, upon finding them, expels them from the Garden.
God spoke clear words of judgment that at the same time as they punish simultaneously restore Adam and Eve. They are returned to the command to work but with sweat, to find abundance but through toil, and to observe God’s limits by being shut out of the Garden. Finally, the judgment ends with the reminder of how God created humans in the beginning, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The words “you are dust and to dust you shall return” were spoken both to end Adam and Eve’s disobedience and at the same time to begin their redemption. They were restored to the work, the abundance, and the limitations they were first given in the moment of creation.
Thomas Merton once said, “The cross of ashes traced upon the forehead… is not only a reminder of death but inevitably (though implicitly) a pledge of resurrection.”
Not that the story of Woody and Buzz is gospel, but those two toys learned a similar lesson. Buzz came to realize he was a toy, to accept his limits; and Woody came to realize his limits were just the beginning of all that he could do.
This night, as we mark ourselves with ashes, may we discover in them the reminder of our mortality and the promise of our renewal. Amen.