In January I went with friends to the Natural History Museum in Washington DC. We wandered through an exhibit called “Deep Time” which chronicles billions of years and several mass extinctions. A pre-historic turtle hangs from the ceiling near a mechanical pterodactyl, slowly flapping its wings. There are trilobites to touch and video reenactments of the eruption of a super volcano and a meteor crashing into our fragile, tiny world.
There’s an up-side to mass extinctions. During global catastrophes, when most living things evaporate, freeze, boil or got pressed deep into the ground, some life continues and out of the surviving living things new, amazing animals come into being. As far as we know we’re the only creatures who get to know this before we too will be pressed down into the earth with our brethren: the mammoths, the miniature horses and the prehistoric shrimp.
Humus is a dirt rich with decomposed trees and leaves and animals. Just like so many growing things, the word “humility" grew out of the humus. English translations of the Latin word “humilis” include "humble", "grounded", and "from the earth". So in a way, to have humility is to remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
On Ash Wednesday I was standing by the PATH train with my thumb deep in a jar of what amounts to oil and humus. Mothers were pulling their kids along the street, lovers kissed goodbye and vans with the names of nearby apartment complexes dumped out hundreds of people who scattered like marbles down the sidewalks. A young woman walked passed me, made a U-turn and asked if I was giving out ashes. When I confirmed she pulled up her bangs, offered her forehead and said. “Make it small and cute.” An older woman trundled up to me with her practical shoes and heavy bags to announce, as if we were friends, that her mother Norma had died. We prayed, she cried and I made a cross with my dirty thumb on her head, pressing the dust she herself will return to, along with her mother Norma, into her heart and mind. A member of New Hope Baptist Church saw me as he was about to disappear down the subway stairs on his way to work. He smiled wryly about this weird thing priests do, gave me a hug and made my day.
Ah God- the dinosaurs, the ashes, the Baptists and me- we are dirt: the stuff you turn from nothing into something. Help us take you more seriously and ourselves less so. Help us to hold our lives lightly because they aren’t really ours, but yours.
Humble and humus us. Amen.