On March 1st, we began our Lenten journey with the observance of Ash Wednesday. Traditional liturgies for the day focus on the brevity of life and remind worshippers that they came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. For our ancestors in the faith, Lent was a morose season in which they gave up something as a way of mortifying the body. They believed that God’s salvation required turning their backs on the joys of embodiment and the beauties of the earth. Faithful Christians trained their eyes on heaven, forsaking this present life for the life to come.
No wonder so few people choose to come to Ash Wednesday services if that is the message. I have to admit that for years, I struggled with Ash Wednesday Service precisely because of the asceticism it implied. At best my self-denial in Lent was typically half-hearted and short-lived.
These days, I am reconsidering the meaning of Ash Wednesday and the whole of Lent for that matter. The brevity and uncertainty of life now invites me to praise, wonder, and beauty, and to seize the moment – for this is the day God has made and I will rejoice in it! When so much that I love and care for is mortal and transitory, I am finding that these fragile lives are something to celebrate and cherish. We are constantly in the process of dying – each of us; but we are also constantly living as we reflect God’s vision in the world as en-fleshed creatures. This day, this moment, is a “thin place” for God is with us – revealed in flesh and blood, and healing touch.
Yes, we are dust, but we are heavenly dust, springing forth from a multi-billion year holy adventure. Carl Sagan used to talk about the fact that humans are made up of (in his words) “star stuff:” The same basic elements that make up our bodies, also make up the suns and moons and stars throughout the universe. Thus, we are inextricably linked with the cosmos; we are part of a larger reality, because at our most basic molecular levels we are linked with all of creation.
So when I trace a cross on your forehead with ashes and say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” remember that dust is good, after all; it is the place of fecundity, of moist dark soil, emerging from God’s intergalactic creativity. We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting God’s love over billions of years and in billions of galaxies.
May Lent’s 40 days provide you with the opportunity to celebrate the goodness in these all too fleeting and fragile lives we have. And may we look for how God is calling us to use this precious time to create the Kingdom of heaven right here on earth.