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Meaning in the Margins

Reflections on Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday

In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus articulated a radical theory: Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. His idea wasn’t new, but breakthroughs in mathematics allowed him to prove without a doubt that Earth was not the center of the universe.  

In 1924, Edwin Hubble peered into the darkness of space from a telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles. He focused his attention on a mysterious milky haze called a nebula. He identified particular stars in the cloudy substance that helped him accurately measure their distance from Earth. To his surprise, they were at such a great distance that he was forced to conclude that the stars belonged to an entirely different galaxy. Because of his discovery, the Andromeda Nebula was reclassified and renamed to be the Andromeda Galaxy, and the total known galaxy count rose from one to two. Since then, the space telescope bearing Hubble’s name has helped astronomers discover a staggering 100 billion galaxies.

In 1543, Copernicus knocked humanity off its pedestal at the center of the universe. 

In 1924, Hubble relegated humanity to the margins. 

In the past 100 years, the discoveries have come frequently and fast—one humbling revelation after another.

The writer of Ecclesiastes knew nothing about space telescopes or galaxies but seemed to also be wrestling with the meaning of a life lived in the margins: 

Life is fleeting, like a passing mist. It is like trying to catch hold of a breath; all vanishes like a vapor; everything is a great vanity. What good does it do anyone to work so hard again and again, sun up to sundown? All his labor to gain but a little? One generation comes, another goes; but the earth continues to remain (Eccles. 1:1-4, The Voice Bible).

If the writer of Ecclesiastes wrestled with the meaning of a life that is like a vanishing vapor, how much more do we feel the crushing weight of living a vapor-like life against the backdrop of a universe that is 13.8 billion years old? 

Denial and Despair

This month, many churches around the world will mark the beginning of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service. During this unique service, a mosaic of humanity will shuffle forward to receive the imposition of ashes on the forehead while these sobering words from Genesis 3:19 are spoken: “For dust you are and to dust you will return.”

These are hard words to swallow. The reality of our here-today, gone-tomorrow “dustness” can easily lead to despair. Knowing that everything we do and say will scatter and be forgotten can make us swing between two extremes: denial and despair.

In denial, we spend much of our lives unconsciously trying to overcome our “dustness” through work, academic success, the accumulation of things, or having children. In all of this and more, we attempt to do something that will endure, something “important” that will help us claw our way from obscurity in the margins to significance at the center. But it doesn’t work. No matter how hard we try, we simply don’t want to (or aren’t able to) believe the truth that we are beings made of dust. 

Swinging the other way, we find ourselves waist-deep in despair. Rather than living with constant anxiety, we drift through life in a depressive state. Living our dust-filled lives in the margins makes us want to give up before we even begin. Nothing seems to matter. The words of Ecclesiastes sink deep into our bones: “Everything is a great vanity.” Sigh.

The Hope of Christ

But Scripture directs us toward an entirely different response. In fact, the secret to a meaningful and significant life lived in the margins of the universe can be deciphered in the dust of Ash Wednesday. The mark made on the forehead is not an ill-defined smudge, but an intersection of vertical and horizontal lines—a symbol of the power of the cross. 

Christ descended into the margins, became dust, and died for us. 

We are beloved dust.  

That changes everything.

God’s love reaches to the furthest corners of the universe so that we might know that there is meaning in the margins. The dusty cross made on the forehead on Ash Wednesday gives way to an empty tomb on Easter Sunday, when Christ rose from the ground with a new, incorruptible body. God’s love and Earth’s dust mix in such a powerful way that Genesis 3:19 doesn’t get the final word on humanity’s place in the universe. Because of Jesus, “for dust you are and to dust you will return” gets an addendum: 

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Cor. 15:51-52).

In 1543, Copernicus proved that the earth is not the center of the universe. After Hubble’s discovery in 1924, humanity has been wondering if Earth is the center of anywhere. 

As science advances and more powerful technologies are deployed, the discoveries will continue. With every new discovery, humanity gets another dose of humility, which can easily lead to denial or despair. The good news of Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday point us to a place where we can find meaning in the margins and where Earth is and always has been firmly at the true center—God’s heart.

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