Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.” For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning. . .though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered. (Psalm 90:1-6)
The words spoken at a Christian committal echo harshly in mourners’ souls: “We now commit this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From dust, to dust. No matter how hopeful the homily, no matter how comforting the hymns, these are the words that drive home the reality of death and decay, that inevitably echo in the minds of mourners who turn disconsolate away from the gaping grave of a beloved spouse, parent, child, friend. Mortal, finite dust…is that all there is after all?
A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, What shall I cry?” All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. (Isaiah 40:6-7).
Isaiah’s words don’t seem to offer much help. In a chapter that begins “Comfort, comfort, my people,” this passage seems as strangely out of context as the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” seems in a service meant to comfort mourners.
But the prophet goes on: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) Here is the comfort! Look not to yourselves, the prophet proclaims, but to the God who is your strength and your salvation, the God who spoke the mountains into being and strewed the stars across the sky. In a world filled with grief and burdens of many kinds, a world in which the hopes and cares of an individual life are crumbled away in the ignominious return to dust, comfort comes only from being hidden and anchored in the One who reigns “from everlasting to everlasting.” (Psalm 90:2)
Perspective is what Isaiah offers here: “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.” (Isaiah 40:22) Kind of dwarfs our obsessions with that zit we’re sure everyone’s staring at, that project that may not make the deadline, the gossip chain we alternately dread and extend, and the myriad other things that consume so much of our attention on an hourly basis, doesn’t it? Challenge yourself: Read Isaiah 40 aloud, and see whether some of your last week’s worth of anxieties diminish in significance…and whether your desire to share those everlasting words with others increases.
Problems in this life are real. Suffering is real. Death is real. Grief is real. But the committal service goes on, proclaiming the proper perspective, the true comfort for which the world yearns: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subdue all things to himself.” Sure and certain hope! Those are the words to remember, the Word in which to live…and to die.