Yesterday began the liturgical season of Lent, a 40-day journey of repentance and simplicity to Easter. Clergyfolk all over Facebook land (myself included) began taking on the frenzied joy of meteorologists in the midst of a mighty storm: Something is happening! And we’re going to talk about it! A lot.
One pastor friend commented that he had accidentally pre-ashed himself, the floor, the counter by spilling the little teeny packet of ashes the church supply store likes to send those who aren’t predisposed to set some old palm branches on fire. That event naturally led to some fun ash shaming by we who are his friends, “What an ashinine thing to do…you had to go and make an ash of yourself!”
Like I said, a frenzy of ash-related posting. I might have even encouraged folks to “get their ash in church.”
But, beneath all of the puns and glee, there is a heaviness to Ash Wednesday. Moving polar opposite to the ways of therapeutic Christianities that promise nothing but feel-good all the time, we say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” while placing ashes in the shape of a cross on a person’s forehead. This has sometimes been called a remembrance that we belong to God, or a mark of repentance, but at its heart, Ash Wednesday tells us of death.
Oof. Heavy stuff.
People I know and care about are weighed down with busyness, depression, exhaustion and worry.
Our world continues to tear itself apart with conflict and the political maneuvering that co-opts it for more power.
A friend posted that she has no words to describe what it’s like to place ashes on the forehead of your two-year-old child and say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ashes are painful, too honest, raw. But also holy.
As I looked church members I’ve grown to love in the eye and said those words, shaping a gritty cross on their foreheads, there was an intensity in that moment words fail to capture. This look, often laced with tears, had the power of gazing at a loved one across a hospital room, seeing a newborn baby for the first time, locking eyes with a dear friend for the last time.
Whatever words there might be to describe this moment, this holy act of acknowledging the fleeting nature of our lives, the best I can come up with is this: it is honest. Painfully so. It is perhaps the most honest worship ever gets. And the most honest I as a minister ever get. I’m not saying what any of us want to hear (or what I particularly want to say), I’m simply stating the truth. Life is finite. We as creatures are limited. Only God is God. Ashes.
There is a bitterness in ashes. But, there is also a blessing. When we admit that we do not have as much time on this earth as we’d like, that whatever we might be capable of, we cannot cheat death, we then can begin to get about the business of living. We can reject the lesser paths of competition and perfection, of denial and indulgence, and instead make this fleeting time between ashes count.
As I said in my meditation last night, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But even our dusty, weary selves possess a spark of the God who breathed life into us after shaping us from the dust of the ground. If there is any truth to cling to in this season of Lent, it is this: you are enough. You have enough. God is enough. Let all the rest go: the show, the distractions, the sinful competition, and let’s journey together. The story doesn’t end in ashes, you know. It ends in resurrection – new life – and it’s worth whatever it takes to get there. Even ashes.