‘Dust and Breath’
‘The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life’
Read Genesis 2:7 and Job 33:4
Standing on the edge of our own mortality can be the strangest place to be. Yet it is a place every one of us will stand one day. Every human being that ever breathed oxygen will one day breathe their last breath through finite lungs.
This idea unsettles us because we live our days in a ‘seeing is believing’ world, a world with tangible dust beneath our feet and tangible warmth from the sun on our faces, tangible air oxygenating our lungs. We feel it, know it, see it, experience it. Until it changes. Until loss breaks in and upends everything we thought we understood.
Death right now is all around us, everywhere in our consciousness. Something we cannot see with our naked human eye has upended all our lives, stolen peace from our minds and loved ones from this earth. Daily we count cases of contagion and death, lists of numbers each one of whom is a person, a person who has been held and cherished and known, a person who is loved, and now lost to grieving hearts; a person who this world has out-lived, but not outlasted.
This ‘seeing is believing’ world as we know it, will one day end.
But we will not.
This world of beauty and pain entwined in time, will one day fade.
But we will not.
This is the truth we sense deep in our hearts that our heads cannot contain; this beautiful, ancient world as it is, will one-day outlive us, but it won’t outlast us. Because loss is not forever in a ‘believing is seeing’ world.
Each year on Ash Wednesday all over Christendom people receive ashen crosses on their foreheads with words whispered low “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
Dust. Dust forged millions of years ago in the bellies of stars gathered together by hands of love and measured, mounded, moulded into us.
‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground…’ Genesis 2:7
Adam. This name, the name naming all our beginnings comes from the Hebrew word adamah which when translated literally means ‘dirt’, ‘ground’ or ‘earth’.
The Bible told us long before Science that we were in continuation with the animals (Genesis 2:7 &19). Our physiology, our material moulding, however long it took, for animals and for humans was always the same: Dirt.
It’s what happens next that makes us different. Our vessels made of clay carry something more.
‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ Genesis 2:7
Leaning low, in intimate intention the Maker of all things (whose very name ‘YHWH’ sounds like a whispered breath, a soft exhale) breathes into us His own breath, His own life and we live. Hear it now, whispered ‘YHWH’, His name is His breath. It is not just His breath but this fullness of His name, His likeness, His image that was breathed into us that day; the day that began all days for all humankind.
All life comes from Him and is bound together in Him, but it is His own breath that first inflates our lungs large, His own breath that first oxygenates our blood and floods our cells with life. His breath that calls us, whispering our names, awakening our souls to life. Beyond physiology, beyond instinct, beyond understanding, that day we gasp our first breath we are human. Our difference from the animals is not by degree, but by breath; His breath.
In Genesis 2:7 the Hebrew word used for breath is נְשָׁמָה néshamah. It sounds like a whisper, like breath itself, and it is only ever used to describe the life breathed into human beings, not animals. This whispering word means more than a puff of air, or an oxygenated exhale. It means the life of God, spiritual understanding and conscience. It means us.
It is His Breath in us passed down as an inheritance to all humanity that gives us understanding, consciousness, the deep and confusing knowledge in our soul that we are more than dust.
Job, the oldest book in the Bible and subsequently one of the oldest books in the world, says…
‘It is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding’ (Job 32:8)
Understanding is breathed into us and we become a mystery to ourselves. All the wisdom of King Solomon couldn’t plumb the depths of our God-breathed, God-given breath…
‘He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.’ Ecclesiastes 3:11
He has set eternity in our hearts because He has set Himself there, His image, His likeness. Not just the Hebrew but also the Greek and Latin words for breath all simultaneously mean spirit. Spirit and breath are one.
But we forget. How often we forget our breath and treat ourselves like dirt. How often we think that dust is all we are. We wallow in our mud and forget the Breath that brought the mud to life.
Breathe. Breathe deep today this gift of God: Breath.
It has a power of its own, this breathing deep. It calms and cradles, stills and steadies. My mind’s whir and whirl dissipate with every breath I breathe out slow. The-merry-go-round stops, the inner hamster wheel stills, calm returns, life returns, perspective returns. I return.
When I hear the breathing of my children at night, the ebb and flow, the soft and slow exhale, I breathe out too in relieved response. The soft rhythmic resting rise and fall of breath, the lullaby of lungs breathed out long. The sound of my son breathing slow in slumber salves my soul, my soul which has too often listened, biting lip, to his asthmatic rasp, wheezing thin. My soul that has sat cradling him in emergency rooms praying his breath would remain.
Breath is precious, for breath is life.
Breathe deep today, for you are more than dirt, more than dust, more than a sack of cells hung together on bones, you are the breath of God, and that breath is breathtakingly full of beauty and breath-givingly beautiful. Precious. Honoured. Bewildering. More valuable than a universe of light.
In the beginning of all things, with breath forged into words God created all things.
‘By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth’. (Psalm 33:6)
…And with that same breath He then created you; and you became a mystery to yourself.
But here-in lies a greater mystery yet; the same Breath that whispered the Universe into existence, the Being that first breathed your limpness into life, filling your emptiness with fullness, your asphyxiation with air, that breath once given at the beginning of all things, is now twice given at the beginning of new things. That same breath that birthed stars into being, once heaved out hard through burning lungs at Calvary, now breaths brand new that breath in you, and you have the choice to live. New. You have the chance to be. New.
Jesus, giving up His own breath that day long ago on the dusty hill outside Jerusalem purchased for you and me and all humanity once more our inheritance: the renewed breath of God within us. The gift of forever.
When our human breath breathes out its last, as it will someday for everyone of us, and we return to dust from whence our body was formed, our breath will not end, will not fail, will not fall into the nothingness of air. Our inheritance as human beings is a gift that lasts forever now, not because of anything we have done, but because of everything He has done.
All over Christendom on Ash Wednesday people receive ashen crosses on their foreheads with words whispered low “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
Yes, from dust you came and to dust you will return. But you are more than dust and more than dirt and more than the mud trod beneath your feet. Remember this. Remember it long and slow, like a breath drawn in. Hold onto it, like a holding your breath in anticipation, in wonder.
Remember this one thing that makes all other things make sense: Dust is only the beginning of your song, not the continuing melody and not the closing crescendo. Hear it gently, like a whisper on the breeze, like a song in your heart; yes, remember you are dust but never forget you are more.
This beautiful, ancient world as it is will one-day outlive you, but it won’t outlast you. Because loss is not forever in a believing is seeing world.
Remember you are breath, and to Breath …YHWY… you shall return.
All photos of stars and galaxies are used with grateful thanks to the NASA, ESA STSCI, Hubble Heritage Team and the specific people below.
Use of these images is in the public domain. Hubblesite.org
T. C. Mitchell, “The Old Testament Usage of Néshama,” (1961)
This post is from my new blog… ‘The Long Walk’ which you can find at livethelongwalk.com if you’d like to see more.