February 13, 2013
A few weeks ago my confirmation class was discussing Ash Wednesday—how this service differs from others and why. When I suggested it was a time to remember that we—and everyone and everything else on earth—is finite, limited, and mortal, one of them exclaimed, “That is like the worst church holiday ever! So we just get together and remember we’re going to die?”
Well, actually, yeah. “Now is the acceptable time,” says the letter to the church in Corinth. Now is the acceptable time to spend time together remembering that we’re all going to die. It’s the acceptable time to look head-on at something this society finds it unacceptable think about or talk about. We don’t even like the word DIE. We speak of people “passing on,” “crossing over,” or “going to their eternal rest.” But on this day, Christians publicly acknowledge our temporary natures, and even externally mark ourselves with symbols of our mortality. Soon you will hear these words said not just to a room full of people, but also to you personally: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Why? What kind of wisdom or hope is there to be gleaned from this acknowledgement? Does knowing that we’re going to die help us live more fully in the present moment? Lead us into holier living? Does admitting our sins, our flaws, our shortcomings, drive us to repentance and renewal, or simply to giving up? Can the season of Lent—and Ash Wed. in particular—teach us to pay attention because how we live really matters? Or is it really just, as my confirmand claims, “the worst church holiday ever”?
I want to believe there is some merit to thinking about our humanity. I trust that hope can spring from facing death. I do believe we embrace resurrection more fully and joyously when we first acknowledge that death is inevitable. There can be great freedom in admitting that we have limitations, that we don’t always have our acts together, and are unlikely to do so any time soon. Because it is in such moments that we can also remember that God does NOT have limitations and is infinite. God is indeed the one who holds the whole world in the palm of God’s hand. And God can do what none of us can do—bring life out of death.
We use the symbol of ashes on our foreheads because ashes are an Old Testament sign of repentance. When people were in mourning or grappling with guilt and sorrow, they often put on sackcloth and ashes. But the image really goes back further—all the way back to the beginning, when God molded Adam out of dirt. We wear ashes are a reminder that we are unable to control death, but when God breathes into a pile of ashes or dust, it can become a living being. We are not able to rise to every need the world has, nor—on our own—are we capable of altering even our own hearts and minds. Now is the acceptable time to recall that we are made of dust, but now is also the acceptable time to recall that God can do amazing things with dust! God can breathe life into us and through us! God who made us can work through us, can use our hands and feet to tend to creation as Adam and Eve, the first dust bunnies, tended to the garden. On Ash Wed. we remember God’s creation is fragile, but God is not.
To find the blessing in being mortal, it seems to me, is not to run away from it, but to lean into it. To fall right into God’s powerful arms. Lent invites us to “return to the Lord,” to return to the awareness that we are the work of God’s hands and not God. The prophet Joel calls us to “return to the Lord” with all our hearts, with fasting (that is, holding back on things we think we need to stay alive so we can reconnect with God, who is the truth source of life). And we are called to return to God with “weeping and mourning, rending open our hearts,” not because God wants us to be miserable, but because God wants us to get close to the truth.
The season of Lent is an opportunity to shed our layers of old stuff like a snake sheds its skin. This is the time to peel back the obstacles and guards we’ve put up around our hearts to protect ourselves and take a good look inside. “Rend your hearts,” Joel says—or at least pay attention to the places where our hearts are already broken. What do we see inside the wounded parts of our hearts? How have we been shaped by the people we have turned away from, as well as the people we’ve turned toward? What scars have been left by the paths we chose to take, as well as the paths we didn’t? How have the things we have done and left undone brought us to where we are today? And how does our pain shape tomorrow?
These are not easy questions. It is not always fun to excavate our interior lives, especially the painful parts. But on Ash Wed. we admit that only by facing our own fragility can we fully appreciate God’s strength. When we embrace our vulnerabilities and our brokenness, we will have to rely not on our own goodness, but on God’s. We are just dust, it is true. The good news is that God is not. Even while we are looking into our torn hearts and checkered pasts, admitting how mortal we are, God’s renewing Spirit is busily at work in those very same places, healing us and making us whole .
Now is the acceptable time to return to the Lord our God. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. We are indeed dust, but when God breathes into dust, we become living beings. Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider