Today we begin, yet again, the season of Lent. 40 days of walking the final weeks, days, and hours of Jesus life with him before we arrive in Jerusalem and wait with him while he dies. We do all of that knowing, of course, that the joy and glory of Easter is just beyond the darkness of the grave. Knowing that in Easter we lift our eyes up and look to the skies—as the great Wesley hymn goes, “Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted Head; made like him, like him we rise, ours the cross, the grave, the skies.” And all of that soaring stuff is good, really good, but much of the time I am more interested in my next meal than I am with soaring into heaven. I have always been a bit more interested in the earth than the skies. More at home with flesh and its wonderful strangeness than with grand dreams of eternal glory.
We begin this 40 week season tonight with ashes on our heads, the same way we do every year. As the ashy grit is smeared on our foreheads we hear the words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. These ashes are smeared on anyone who comes forward, infants to the aged, the healthy and the sick, without partiality. A reminder that we are all in this together and we will all end the same way. Our return to dust being the great equalizer of life.
I have often heard and imagined these words of remembrance that I am dust to be something of a caution, something of a “don’t get too attached to your body and to this life because it is transitory” warning. But this year, I heard a story that has shifted my view a bit—a story about the aftermath of the 9/11 attack—the day that ashes were not confined to a church but were everywhere in New York. A Port Authority policeman was interviewed and as he spoke, in the background was the groaning of dump trucks, and the hissing and popping of torches cutting through steel. Thirty of his friends had died on September 11, the policeman explained, which was why he could not stay away from the site. When the reporter asked him to describe the scene for those who were listening, he talked about the relief workers who were sifting through the powdered debris on the ground, carrying two handfuls at a time over to a tarp where they searched through it for anything recognizably human. What struck him most, the policeman said, was their utter reverence for what they carried in their hands. “It’s nothing but ashes,” he said, “and yet you should see how they touch it.”
Which puts sort of a different spin on the whole thing for me. It made me think that the good news of Ash Wednesday may not be about the poverty of flesh, not a cautionary tale of the finiteness of life, so much as it is about the holiness of ashes, the truth that ashes are worthy of all reverence. It was God, after all who decided to breathe on them, God who chose to bring them to life. God who saw the infinite potential in dust and so created a universe. We are certainly dust and to dust we shall return, but in the meantime our bodies are sources of deep revelation for us. They are how we come to know both great pain and great pleasure. They help us to recognize ourselves in one another. They are how God gets to us, at the most intimate and universal level of all. They are a sacred gift from the God who gave us life and who chose to share it with us, in exactly the same flesh, the same dust, as you and me.
Bodies frighten us too, of course—not only when they are sick or dirty but also when they are passionate or demanding—which may be why we are so often tempted to think of ourselves as essential spirits, built for soaring, instead. But believers in the word made flesh are called to resist that temptation, even as we have ashes pressed into our foreheads. Those ashes are not curses. They are blessings instead, announcing God’s undying love of dust no matter what kind of shape it is in.
The next 40 days we will pray, learn, and be fed together here in church as we walk the Lenten path to the cross. Outside of church life will go on—we will experience joy and pain, we may get sick, or have a baby, someone we love may die. We will do all the things that God-breathed dust does. And whatever shape we are in when we get there, Easter will come—with its trumpets, lilies, and skies. But perhaps this year we will get there remembering that whatever else Easter is about, it is about remembering this truth—the truth of God’s undying love of dust.
To give us strength for the journey, and to serve as a reminder of God’s irrational fondness for dust, here is a Lenten blessing from poet Jan Richardson.
All those days you felt like dust, like dirt, as if all you had to do was turn your face toward the wind and be scattered to the four corners, or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial—did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust? This is the day we freely say we are scorched. This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning. This is the moment we ask for the blessing that lives within the ancient ashes, that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth. So let us be marked not for sorrow. And let us be marked not for shame. Let us be marked not for false humility or for thinking we are less than we are but for claiming what God can do within the dust, within the dirt, within the stuff of which the world is made and the stars that blaze in our bones and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.[i]
[i] Jan Richardson, Blessing the Dust, from Circle of Grace