Artists mark their works with their names or initials or some other mark to help others know who created the work of art. Painters sign their paintings. Potters use potters’ marks. Ancient letter writers used wax and a signet ring to seal a letter with their initials or another symbol which identified the sender and gave the recipient a sense of full assurance that the contents remained private, for their eyes only. Authors sign their books and copyright the contents. Ancient coins in China used chop marks to validate the weight and authenticity of the coin.
When I was in high school, we were given our own number in shop class. With metal dies, we marked our “creations” (such as they were) in a hidden corner to mark them as our masterpiece. I still have a small night table beside my bed with the number (#106) stamped underneath one of the wooden runners.
When I finish a piece of needlework, I work my initials into the design. You can barely see it, until I point it out—a “Y” with the downward stem leading into the middle of a rounded “W”. The mark proudly proclaims that I am the craftsperson who made this piece of art, that I am proud of what I have made, and that I have participated in a process of creating something beautiful in the world.
Just as artists leave their mark on their environment, so we all make a mark on the world in which we live. A friend of mine, a potter, reflects that we all want to “make our mark” on the soft clay of our lives and the lives of others. He spends his days working with clay, with mud, with soft earth, and at the end of a day, he’s a mess—clay in his hair, on his glasses, under his fingernails, all over his clothes. His wife demands he spend some time in the “mud room” before coming into the house and tracking his dirt throughout a home which she has tried to keep clean.
As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that the first word in the Bible to refer to human beings is the Hebrew word ‘adam. It appears in Genesis 2:7: “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground”. ‘Adam simply means “man”. It’s not a name. We are so used to talking about Adam and Eve that we no longer remember that ‘adam is simply a generic word for human being.
The point of this is to point to some delightful wordplay in this story. “The Lord God formed ‘adam from ‘adamah.” To put it more clearly, the story is that God formed the earth–creature (that’s us!) from earth. I delight in this kind of wordplay.
Can we find a similar kind of word play in English? Indeed we can, although it is hidden in ancient word roots. Etymologists, who study word origins, talk about the Proto–Indo–European language (PIE), which refers to a theoretical common ancestor for European languages. The PIE root for human is dhghem. The same root underlies the words “humus” (which means earth) and “humble” (from Latin humilis which literally means “on the ground”).
Yes, I’m a geek.
And the reason my mind went in this direction is because on February 17, we marked Ash Wednesday. The central rite in churches which celebrate Ash Wednesday is that we come forward to have our forehead marked with the sign of the cross in ashes. We are exhorted, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
On Ash Wednesday, we remember our humble origins. We recall that we are earth–creatures. We come from the earth, and at the end of our days we will return. We are one with the earth and all the other earth–creatures.
Like potter’s clay, we can trace the marks of God’s soft, gentle fingers as she shapes us. When I say “God”, I mean so much more than we can ever imagine. Parenthetically, unlike many other Christians, I don’t claim to understand completely who God is. I absolutely do not claim to know what “God’s will for your life” is. God is a mystery that is so far beyond our ken that I don’t think we can ever know God fully or completely. If we claim to know God, or God’s purposes, then it’s not God. It is more an invention of our own desires.
On Ash Wednesday, we consciously get in touch once more with our earthly selves. Some people see it as a ritual which seeks to induce guilt, as if remembering our mortality and frailty makes us feel guilty. I don’t think it is.
Rather, the ashes are a profound symbol by which we remember our origin and our destiny. We remember who we are; it’s traced on our foreheads. We remember whose we are; the ashes are in the form of the cross. We remember what grounds us in our very being. We remember that the One who formed us as earth–creatures is the One who continues to trace in the soft clay of our lives with lines of compassion, grace, and love.
It’s important to remember that we are created in goodness and joy. The reality is that there are other hands in this world which seek to mold us. Some hands seek to shape us for good. Others seek to shape us with evil intent. Even as we make a mark in this world, we are also being marked by other forces.
Just as we make our mark in the world, so others are marking and shaping our lives. If, in the end, we are not too misshapen by evils, then we will become a cup from which others may drink some cool water.
We are earth–creatures. We live humble lives, living on the ground, seeking to leave a mark even as we are being marked.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook