There's an old Jewish saying that says that everyone should carry with them two notes – one in each pocket. In one pocket, the note should proclaim “for you the universe was created.” The other should say, “you are dust.”
Ash Wednesday is the day we carry these two notes with us into a place of reflection and transformation. As we begin our journey through Lent, we enter a time of discovery (or rediscovery) of what it means to be human - in all the fullness that is: from the wonder of our birth (“for you the universe was created”) to the acceptance of our death (“you are dust”).
Of course, it’s the “you are dust" one we expect to be the focus today. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: we’re reminded of our mortality. Although, I wonder, do we really need the reminder? Death is a constant intruder into our lives. Whether expected or sudden, known or unknown to us personally, the death of another confronts us starkly with the fragility of life. If you’ve ever faced a life-threatening illness or been through any kind of health crisis, you’ve come fact to face with the stunning realization that you are mortal, you will not live forever.
So, in a way, Ash Wednesday is a non-life-threatening way of helping us deal with our precarious existence on this mortal coil. It also brings us into solidarity with all our fellow travelers on the journey between birth and death. It levels the playing field. The rich ruler is no different from the poor beggar. All of us, from the least to the greatest: ashes to ashes.
Now traditionally, Ash Wednesday stops here, with the reminder of the brevity of life, the reminder that we came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. And during the season of Lent, we often give up something as a way of denying ourselves, fasting in a sense, in order to become more attuned to our lowly status. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with striving for a little humility. Anything that helps me remember that I’m not master of the universe is useful.
But if we’re honest – and Lent is a season of truth-telling about ourselves – we’ll recognize that most of us move back and forth on a continuum: on one end feeling like we’re master of the universe, on top of the world and on the other end like we’re at the bottom of the heap, like the gum on somebody’s shoe. In other words, some days we need the reminder “you are dust.” On other days, we really need somebody to tell us “for you the universe was created.”
Unfortunately, there are some people who dwell on one end of the spectrum or the other most of the time. If you’re an autocratic bully, being told that the universe was made for you, is not a helpful Lenten message. If you’re the one who’s been beaten-down and abused by the bully, being told to humble yourself because you’re nothing but dust itself borders on the abusive.
The wisdom of these ashes, this dust of the earth, is that we are called to be fully human in all the beauty, sorrow, messiness that entails. This dust is beautiful. I’ve put it into the baptismal bowl to say in a visual way that – even before our baptism – we were all created in a beautiful image of the Divine – from the stuff of the earth.
This is a message very much needed in our culture of denial about the beauty of our bodies – no matter what shape, what abilities, what gender, no matter what. Our bodies are beautiful. I dare you to look in the mirror when you get home and declare, “My body is beautiful!”
In this season, when we think a little more about sin, perhaps we could call it sin to denigrate bodily-ness in all its forms: from neglecting or not appreciating our own incarnated belovedness in this skin and bones to abusing the belovedness of the body of Mother Earth. There should no longer be a hierarchy of spirit over matter, a duality we inherited from the Enlightenment – not from scripture. In fact, as Matthew and Luke tell it, Jesus was born in the bloody messiness of human birth and died, really died in the flesh. In between, he called those who listened to a new way of being in the world.
And so we are called, too. Not to a life a self-flagellation or life-denying humility, nor to one of selfish indulgence. Jesus calls us to a life of deep truth-telling. And make no mistake about it, this can be a very scary and dangerous thing. You may discover things about yourself that you don’t want to know. You may find that you really do need to make changes in yourself that will be hard.
So if we believe that going into the metaphorical desert will ultimately bring about trans-formation, are you willing to go? Are you willing to enter into a truth-telling journey of self-awareness. Yes, it’s a bit more challenging than giving up chocolate. Unless you’ve discovered that chocolate is hindering your journey. It may well be. The idea is to ask yourself what is holding you back from being fully human – which incudes a deep connection to the presence of the Divine within you and around you. That’s the challenge of Lent.
You are dust. For you the universe was created. This Lent, live into the tension of those two great truths. Welcome to the journey.