Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. These are the words we heard when the priest smudged us with ashes a few weeks back, on Ash Wednesday. The entire Lenten period is marked by this reminder of darkness and death. The admonition may seem dark and gruesome, bereft of hope, as if the best we can do is resign ourselves to the inevitable: Dust we are, and to dust we shall return.
Jesus, our creator God, knows our darkness and our fears. John 9, last Sunday’s Gospel reading, depicts him spotting us by the side of the road, surrounded by Lenten darkness and death. Here is one of Adam’s children, he thinks to himself, a creature that I made. I formed him of dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). But look at him now: Dust he is, and to dust shall he return.
Why does Jesus stop? Why does he pity the blind man? Why does he heal him? The answer lies hidden in the claim he makes of himself: “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).
The self-assertion is unmistakable. Jesus is “I am”—the one who appeared to Moses from the midst of the burning bush. Jesus is the “light of the world”—the one who is light and in whom is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). Only the creator God is I am; only the creator God is the light of the world.
Jesus is none other than the creator himself, looking at his creature sitting by the side of the road. How his original work of creation has been disfigured: When the creator made him, he didn’t make him a blind man; nor did he make him destined for dust and for death. Adam lived in the light. “In thy light shall we see light,” says the Psalmist (Ps. 36:9). Adam had the keenest of vision. His eyes were equipped with spiritual sight, for the light of God shone always upon him and in him. Adam was a light-filled creature because he shared in the uncreated light that is the very being of God.
Since he shared in God’s light, Adam shared in his life as well. The great evangelist, speaking of the eternal Word of God, tells us in the first chapter: “In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). The one who is light is the one who is life, and the one who is life is the one who is light. If Adam shared in the brilliance of the divine light, he surely shared in the immortality of the divine life also.
When the Word first made Adam, he made him a creature of light and of life—a Word-like creature, sharing in the Word’s light and the Word’s life. Adam knew neither darkness nor death. He had no knowledge of Lent. The creator Word didn’t tell him until later, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Yes, Adam was dust from the start, but the Word made him as dust destined for glory. Adam was a creature of light and of life.
Here is the eternal Word, God himself—“I am the light of the world,” he says—standing by the side of the road. He looks at his creature. How unlike the Adam of light and life is this blind beggar. And how unlike the Adam of light and life are we. How we have fallen away from light into darkness. How we have fallen away from the eternal Word of God. Darkness covers the earth, and gross darkness the people (Isa. 60:2).
The one who himself is light and life does not tolerate darkness and death. They are inimical to who he is. That is why the Word looks us up by the side of the road. That is why he heals our blindness and death.
Jesus spits on the ground, makes clay with his spittle, and then anoints the man’s eyes with the clay. I am at a loss to decide which of the two is more startling: that Jesus smears clay on this beggar’s eyes; or that John describes the smearing as an anointing. We surely are meant to take note of both.
Think first of the clay. Have we not already seen that Jesus is the I am, the light of the world, and hence the eternal Word and Adam’s creator? Recall that in Paradise, the Word formed man of dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7). Here is what is happening in our Gospel passage: Jesus the Word—confronted with darkness and death—goes back to creation, takes dust from the ground, and acts like the creator he is: He remakes his Adamic creature by the side of the road. Saint Irenaeus puts it this way: “Notice here, he says, “how the Lord spit on the earth, and made clay and smeared it on his eyes, showing how the ancient creation was made. He was making clear to those who can understand, that this was the [same] hand of God through which man was formed from clay.” Jesus applying clay to the man’s eyes is nothing less than the eternal Word of God refashioning Adam of dust from the ground.
But why anointing? We anoint people with oil. That’s what the other readings from the Fourth Sunday of Lent are about: David is anointed with oil—both in the story of 1 Samuel 16 and in Psalm 23 (“thou anointest my head with oil”). Who has ever heard of anointing with clay or with dust? Why doesn’t Saint John write that Jesus plastered or blackened or smudged the man’s eyes with clay? That’s what we do on Ash Wednesday: The priest smudges our foreheads; he doesn’t anoint them. Yet, this is the language we read: Jesus anoints the man’s eyes with dust.
The rationale of our Lord, I think, is this: he wants us to share his divine life. He wants us to join the light and the life that he is. Jesus wants to give back what we lost in the fall. Needed for such recreation is our anointing with the Spirit of God.
Things have always been thus. Think back to creation: “The Lord God formed the man of dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). The Word created Adam by way of two steps. First, he did the pottery work, taking clay from the ground and shaping a bodily form. Next, he breathed the “breath of life”—indwelling his Adamic creature with his very own Spirit.
Or think back to Ezekiel’s dry-boned valley. His vision was a picture of Judah’s deportation death. How does Judah come back to life and return from exile? First this: “There was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them” (Ezek. 37:7–8). First, the pottery work, dust from the ground.
Then follows this: “Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army” (37:9–10). The Word indwells his banished creatures with his wind or his Spirit and so makes them share in the life that is he.
Of course, Jesus anoints, for Jesus creates, and creation is always a two-step process—first dust, then breath; first body, then Spirit. We have been anointed with the Holy Spirit, says the Apostle John in his first epistle (1 John 2:20). What he means is that the Jesus, the Word of light and life, has healed our blindness and death. What he means is that Jesus has made us share in his light and his life. What he means is that creation is finally finished, complete.
The healing of the blind man is an astounding event, much more than the undoing of a physical ailment. It is nothing short of the recreation of the human race, nothing less than the deification of man through the gifting of the Holy Spirit—for we all are the blind man. At some point, we were darkness, Saint Paul tells us, but now we are light in the Lord (Eph. 5:8).
This last phrase, “in the Lord,” is key. The light and the life that the beggar receives are not merely human light or human life; they are the uncreated light and life of Christ. Blind beggars receive this light and this life in him, in Christ, in the eternal Word of God.
Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return—true enough. But Lent does not issue forth merely in darkness and death. Lent gives way to the light and life of Easter morn. What sustains us through hardship and suffering is the knowledge that “in the Lord” our dust is destined for glory, that “in the Lord” our darkness and death shall give way to resurrection light and resurrection life.
This is the gospel of Lent: He anointed the eyes of the blind man with clay.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Image by Andrey Mironov licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.