Lessons for the Fast: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The season of Lent begins with one word: Remember. “Remember,” says priest or minister as a cross of ash and dust is traced on our brows, “that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a sober beginning to the serious business of Lenten prayer and penitence. As we reflect on those things that have defined our lives for good or evil and made us who we are, we also remember that we share a common fate and end. “In the midst of life we are in death,” is the way the burial liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer puts it. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
But there’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday, something that draws us here in both numbers and intensity quite unusual for a weekday. It’s more than just habit or duty – somehow more than just the beginning of Lent. What we say and what we do on this special Wednesday has power.
A large part of that power probably lies in the fact that today the church speaks words of truth, words that cannot be ignored, or disputed, or evaded, or denied. Today we say – and confirm with a touch – “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There it is. Much else that we say in here we may hope is true, or fear is true, or believe, or doubt. But this we know: We are mortal. We were born. We will die.
Our time together is short, and our journey has an end. The ashes of this day bear an uncanny resemblance to what will be left of us all a thousand years from now. They bring us together as nothing else can. A NASA scientist participating earlier this year in the recovery of the Stardust space probe describes it this way, “All the atoms on earth and in our bodies were in stardust before the solar system formed.” And, he might have added, to stardust they shall return.
From dust, to dust. As if hearing the words were not enough, they are literally rubbed into our faces. Ashes mark us – and our fate is strangely visible.
Then Jesus goes one step further. He reminds us that dust is the destination, not just of our bodies, but of most of what we consider to be worth living for, as well. Moth and rust and thieves can – and will – reduce to dust…everything. The withered remnants of once green palm branches, burned on Shrove Tuesday and reduced to the ash of today’s solemn Ash Wednesday ritual, bring to mind bring to mind the stuff – but also every goal, every dream, every value, every treasure we hold dear. The dust of our failings and sin reminds us of our common heritage. Across nave and chancel our shared human fate is on display for all to see. And we know that to be true, too. These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries both to hide and to deny – and that we usually do our best to ignore.
Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. These are the final return on virtually every investment we make. Today we say this, and we know its truth and its power.
And that looks like bad news – unmitigated bad news – even though we have known it all along. These grim, honest words can be devastating.
We all know the personal crisis that comes with that first mature realization of the absolute certainty of our own death. We know how jarring it is, and on this day we are reminded of this, and brought closer to this.
From dust, to dust.
To find the Good News here, we need to begin with the past, and with a conviction we Christians hold as firmly as we know the certainty of our own death. This Good News is the conviction that we are created by God – that we did not just happen, that we did not emerge willy-nilly by some cosmic fluke. The dust of our beginnings – that dust from which we came – is not just a matter of chance; it is not without meaning. Our lives are gifts from God. Nothing less. Our dust was molded by the very hands of God, and his Spirit breathed life into it.
So, part of the Good News is that we have been made from dust. The grace and power of God are present at the beginning of our existence. Our dust is holy, our ashes are blessed by the power of God. What appears a threat – “you are dust” – becomes, if we pay attention, a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginning, and before. Our dust is holy; it is cherished by God.
Notice something else. These ashes on our forehead are not just tossed there, or scattered at random. They are placed in the form of a cross. The cross of ash on our forehead today conforms us to the image of the crucified One, the Word Made Flesh, through whom in the expression of the Creed, “all things were made.” We come from the Father, the Creator of the dust and sinew of which we are formed. And through Christ we return to the Father, giving back our mortal and fallen nature sanctified and renewed in the death of him “who knew no sin,” as Paul explains today in our second reading. In Christ, we ourselves “become the righteousness of God.”
Dust and ashes are Good News: They point us toward the power and love of God – both at the beginning and at the end. And they remind us that, because of this Good News, we are called – as we live between dust and dust – to repent and to return. To return to our risen Lord. That’s what “repent” means: to turn, to change the direction in which we are looking and moving, and to look and to move in a new direction.
And today’s call to us to repent doesn’t center on fear – on what will happen to us if we don’t; and it doesn’t center on guilt or duty – on what we think we ought to do. Instead, this call centers on divine love – on the love that is the heart of our creation – on the love that is seen most fully on the cross. It centers on the love that transforms ashes into a symbol of hope.
At the same time, such turning – such repentance – is not something we can think ourselves into; it is not something to which we can pay lip service – or forehead service – and have happen. It depends on concrete action. We don’t think ourselves into a new state of being. We live and we act ourselves into it.
Both Holy Scripture and the accumulated spiritual insight of our tradition tell us that the classical and ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting and giving are powerful helps as we hear and move toward obeying God’s call to return. They are universally recognized ways of keeping our journey moving in the right direction.
Jesus commands these three, but he doesn’t stop there. “Put oil on your head,” Jesus tells us in today’s gospel account from Matthew, “and wash your face.” Put away your gloom. His words bring to mind the water and chrism of baptism and the life won for us through his death. It is almost as if he, along with our neighbors and co-workers, has seen us leaving church today with our smudge of ash. He counsels us not to “look dismal” or smug, as some might who practice their piety before others and seek only praise and a reward for their efforts. Penitence is neither a sign of despair nor a badge of merit. It is an evocation of hope and regeneration and a way of life.
Our Lenten renunciation is in reality a celebration of the kingdom so close at hand. Our spiritual sacrifices and acts of penitence are not ends in themselves but an assurance of God’s love at work within us. To give ourselves away as Christ gave himself for us is to embrace redemption and life. “Now is the acceptable time,” Paul tells us. Our Lenten journey has begun. It takes us to Calvary but it does not end in death. From the ashes of our sin and shame, God will raise us up to new life in the resurrection of his Son.