One of my favorite quotes is by astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan. At the end of one of the episodes of his iconic series, Cosmos, he looks directly into the camera and tells the viewer, “We’re made of star stuff.”
I find this concept particularly poignant on Ash Wednesday, when churchgoers are reminded that “[they] are dust; and to dust [they] shall return” as the mark of the cross is made on their forehead in palm ashes.
Each year I find this ritual quite moving. It reminds me that my imperfect and sinful life on earth is finite and that I, too, will ultimately die and my body break back down into the simple elements. (We, too, are physically just atoms after all.) More so, it reminds me that everyone will experience death. Regardless of how we die, we will all still die.
Seeing the black cross on the heads of all these people really stops a person in one’s tracks. Not only will I die, the person I don’t know that well will die too. So will my dearest friends. So will my parents and relatives. So will my wife. So will my children. I couldn’t help but stare at the forehead of my youngest son who, after a long day, fell asleep in the pew during tonight’s church service with the same black cross on his forehead. I was reminded that he, too, will some day die.
Of course, this ritual is not meant only to remind us of each of our own worldly deaths to come, but to remind us and refocus us on the importance of Jesus Christ’s own death and resurrection–the promise that when we each die, that death does not have the final say. To the Christian, this reminder of our own demise becomes not a sign of destitution but a sign of comfort and hope.
I like being able to find parallels between elements of my faith and the general world around me, thus my Sagan-ean twist on the words I heard said to so many people tonight. I am a person of faith who also reveres science. I firmly believe that the human capacity for critical thought and reason are gifts from God and that we should and must use them to discover all we can about God’s creation–our cosmos. As such, when I have the opportunity to draw a connection between science and faith–or even the broader secular world and faith–I love to do it.
As we pulled out of the church parking lot tonight, I was pondering how all people who have ever existed and all things that have ever existed in the universe are all composed of what is essentially “recycled atoms” that have originated from distant stars and how everyone and everything I have ever known will ultimately return to that state same state of “dust” or “star stuff.” As I turned on the radio, I heard the 2019 cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” by Whitney Houston and Norweigan DJ Kygo. Yes, the 2019 cover of a 1986 song featuring an artist who died in 2012 using vocals recorded in 1990 and a backing track created nearly 30 years later.
Again, in my appreciating seeking the holy in the secular, I was reminded that while our earthly deaths are certainly permanent, they are not final. We have a hope in Jesus Christ who preached and demonstrated the higher love that God has for our entire cosmos.
Walk in the higher love of Jesus Christ and be at peace with your star-stuffiness.