Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our Lenten journey. It is a time to return to that from which we were made—earth and the breath of God. This post includes suggestions for spiritual exercises to return to our breath, return to the earth, and return to God.
Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Genesis 2:7.
Look at this his verse in the Hebrew transliteration and see if you can pick out the words “adam” and “adamah”:
Va.yi.tser a.do.nai e.lo.him et-ha. a.dam a.far min-ha. a.da.ma va.yi.pakh be.a.pav nish.mat kha.yim va.ye.hi ha.a.dam le.ne.fesh kha.ya
“Adam” and “Adamah.” This is a Hebrew pun. Adamah means “dust of the ground.” Adam means “human.” Adam was made from the soil.
So we are, literally, “people of the dirt.” We are “dirt people.”
We don’t like to think of ourselves that way, of course. “What do you mean, I’m just dirt?”
But the Bible is very clear about the substance from which we are made. God has basically taken dirt and water and mixed them together, making a kind of clay. And then God fashioned this clay into a body. Essentially, God made a clay doll. And it wasn’t until God breathed life into the nostrils of this inanimate figure that life entered in and it became human.
“Be-a-pav nish-mat.” Literally, God blew the breath of life. God breathed the breath of life into the mud-man, and the man became a living soul.
So basically, the equation of life is this:
Soil + Breath = Life.
And when we die, the reverse is true:
Life – Breath = Soil.
This is why we hear these words when we come forward to receive the ash cross on our foreheads. “Remember O Man/Woman that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Our death is as basic as our birth. Nothing more, nothing less.
It’s a somber thought, I know. This is a somber service. Ash Wednesday is a time to reflect on the fragility of life, the brevity of our existence. And in light of that finitude, we take stock of our lives and see if we are making the most out of these “jars of clay” we inhabit for only a few decades.
If we are, indeed, just mud-people, with the nishmat—the breath of life—flowing through us, how might this have an impact on our Lenten journey this year?
How might we return to the earth and to the breath of life?
In the Lenten devotional I wrote, For the Beauty of the Earth, I encourage spiritual practices that get us back to ourselves by returning to the earth. Finding ways to reconnect with the earth from which you were created is essential to finding wholeness and being at rest in God. What might that look like for you?
Perhaps you will decide to garden this year. Maybe you will put your hands into the earth, feel the rich, loamy dirt in your fingers, gently place some seeds into it, and watch in amazement as the plant is able to grow in this soil. Even a few pots on the window sill will do. Some herbs, a few flowers, any greenery rooted in soil can help us reconnect to the earth from which we were created.
Or maybe you will take daily walks each of these forty days.
Take a walk on an earthen place – a forest path, a meadow, or just a patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street. Take off your shoes if you can. Feel the earth beneath your feet. Give thanks to God for this planet and all her children.
It’s a wonderful time of year to do this kind of spiritual practice. Because in the northern hemisphere as we watch winter recede and spring begin to take hold, it can be a very renewing experience. We immerse ourselves in the rhythms of the earth, the lifecycle, the God-cycle. And we feel ourselves being swept up into the ebb and flow of life. Things die. And their dying allows other things to live. Things live and cause other things to die. It’s all part of the cycle. Our little lives are like a shard of the mirror, reflecting the larger truths of universe.
But it’s not just the earth to which we need to return.
We also need to return to the nishmat, the breath of God.
What is this breath of God? How does it manifest itself in us? Think of the associations of God’s breath in the Bible. The word ruah is Hebrew for breath, wind, air, and spirit. It also connotes a mother bird hovering over her nest. Ruah at the beginning of creation moves over the waters. The breath of God comes down in the form of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Paul describes how the Spirit intercedes for us in our prayers with “sighs too deep for words.” There it is—prayer! We reconnect with the breath of God by praying—breathing—to God.
Use this season of Lent to realign yourself with the earth from which you came, and the breath of God which gave you life.
In the book I co-edited with my colleague Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, Margaret drew on the work of Anthony de Mello to create this meditation that focuses on the breath.*
- Go to your sacred place.
- Find a position on your chair or cushion in which you feel comfortable, relaxed, and alert. Close your eyes.
- Take some time to ground yourself in your physical sensations. Let your awareness move slowly through your body. Be aware of the sensations in your head… your face… your neck and shoulders… your arms and elbows… your wrists and the palms of your hands… your back… your chest and belly… your buttocks…your thighs and knees… your ankles and the soles of your feet. There is no rush. Take your time.
- Bring your attention to your breathing. Become aware of the air as it enters and leaves your nostrils… Let each breath come and go as it pleases, without trying to control it… Feel the touch of the air as it passes through your nostrils. Is it warm or cool? … In what part of the nostrils do you feel the touch of air as you exhale? … Let your awareness rest in each breath… Every breath is different… When your mind wanders, gently return to the breath… Let the breath become the anchor of your awareness…
- Reflect on the fact that the air you are breathing is charged with the power and the presence of God… Imagine the air as a vast ocean that surrounds you… an ocean filled with God’s presence… As you draw air into your lungs, you are drawing God in… Be aware that every time you breathe in, you are drawing in the power and presence of God… God is breathing God’s breath – God’s spirit – into you… As you breathe out, you are releasing the breath back to God…
- As you breathe in, be aware of God’s Spirit coming into you… Fill your lungs with the divine energy and compassion of God…
- As you breathe out, imagine that you are breathing out all your fears…your negative feelings…
- You may wish to imagine your whole body slowly filling with a warm, golden light…
- Conclude the time of prayer by slowly praying a verbal prayer from your tradition, or a spontaneous prayer of your own.
Our lives are so short. Last year’s green, luscious palms quickly dried and are now nothing more than the black ash that will mark your skin. What have you done with your life this past year since the palms faded? Have you become closer to God? Closer to the earth? Closer to your own breath?
“Adam-nishmat.” We are people of the soil filled with God’s breath. It is time to return.
[*This meditation is based on three exercises – “Body Sensations,” “Breathing Sensations,” and “God in My Breath”- presented by Anthony de Mello in his book Sadhana: A Way to God (New York: Image Books, Doubleday, 1984), 15-16, 26-27, 36-37.]
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).
Leah’s latest book is a Lenten devotional centered on Creation: For the Beauty of the Earth (Chalice Press, 2020).