Today Christians around the world are celebrating this day as “Ash Wednesday” or the day in which we are called to remember that we are mortal beings, with only a finite number of days. By reflecting on the fact that we are composed of elements which come from the Earth and we will one day return those elements to the Earth, we are compelled to examine how we are using the precious days that we do have while we are here.
I remember the one day during my first year as a college student, my professor, Dr. Chad Davies revealed to us that all elemental matter, including the elements from which our own bodies are constructed, originated from inside of ancient stars that exploded and spread the heavy elements throughout the universe. My mind sort of exploded like those stars! Now wait a sec… I came from inside of stars? How does that jibe with what I was taught as a youngster about people being created by God?
But then I remembered the creation story in which Adam is formed by God from the clay of the Earth. And then I remembered Ash Wednesday and the words of the priest on that day,
“Remember man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Hmm, I am basically made of dirt. I come from the Earth and will one day return to it. The elements come from stars that exploded. The Earth formed from those elements. The Earth’s creatures are composed of the elements of the Earth.
As I learned more, I also learned about the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe. It is that point in time where there was nothing at all, and from the nothingness, a big bang occurred. First, a blinding light, followed by heat and some primordial stuff that ejected out and became the first stars.
“Let there be light” -God
Robert Spitzer wrote a fascinating book called, New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy which explores important questions about the formation of the universe. He discusses the precision with which the universe got its start. A few degrees cooler, no big bang. A few degrees warmer, nothing is sustained. It was a perfect setup for the beginnings of the universe and of us.
When I think of Ash Wednesday, I think of the sciencey things I have learned about how the universe was made, how the Earth was formed and how people later appeared, composed of elements coming from exploding stars by way of the dust of the Earth, and I think to myself that there is really no contradiction between the truths of science and the truths of faith in a creator God. Of course there are differences in how these two ways of knowing arrive at what is true, but in the end, the truth is the truth.