Ash Wednesday Meditation

Offered at an ecumenical Ash Wednesday worship gathering,
hosted by the United Protestant Presbyterian Church in Palmer.

Many thanks to the Revs. Tim & Leisa Carrick for the privilege of sharing their space.

From Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 }

Return, the prophet Joel says.

Return to the Lord. 

Get out of your own way, the ancient prophet tells his own people, in his own time: the way you’re traveling only leads away from God’s heart, away from wholeness, away from holiness. Return, because God’s judgment is coming; return, because it’s not too late to draw near to the Holy One.

Does it feel to late to you?

Does it feel too late now, in this age, as the raging armies of violence and division overtake us, spreading fear and despair and hatred…?

Now, in our own time, as we watch the thick darkness spreading, unfurling across our land, as some among us wonder if perhaps this is the Lord’s judgment… do you hear it?

Hear again the voice of the prophet, my friends: return.

Return to the Lord.

Oh, how hard it is, in a culture that has a fix for everything, in a culture that preaches self-help and self-promotion, in a culture that offers a five-step solution for every ill, and yet cannot heal itself…

…how hard it is to return to the Lord, and admit that we are dust.

It strikes at the heart of our American way, this Ash Wednesday practice. To come together and admit that we are not God. That we can only pretend, rather badly, that we are in control. That our best efforts to fix our own human messes have only resulted in more pain and suffering and misunderstanding. That we are merely transients, impermanent visitors, on this tiny blue orb, spinning through space.

Indeed, friends: to remember that we are dust is a distinctly counter-cultural practice.

How we like to pretend that we are not made of dust, but glossy, sculpted plastic: that we have it all put together, that we have this adulting thing figured out, that we are practically perfect. How skilled we become at make-believing that our sin doesn’t actually cause painful ruptures in the fabric of God’s beautiful world, how desperately we try to convince ourselves that all of the evil and ugliness is really because of Someone Else, who probably has Much Bigger Issues Than I Do; how we try to ignore the mounting evidence that we are complicit in the suffering of God’s children, God’s creation.

Perhaps, if we remembered more often that we are dust, we might have the humility to stop the charade, and return to the Lord… to remember that God is God, and we are not, and to confess that we have lost our way.

Return, says the Lord, with fasting and weeping and mourning.

It’s for me hard not to mourn these days, as the news piles up from around our nation and across the globe: we are made of dust and yet we cannot help but abuse and exploit each other, in the name of progress, in the name of profit.

Return, says the Lord, with fasting and weeping and mourning.

And how can I not be moved to weep, when the tears of Rohingya refugees and the tears of those trapped in sexual slavery and the tears of the parents whose children died today in a school shooting are all crying out together for justice, for release?

Return, says the Lord, with fasting and weeping and mourning.

How can I not be moved to fast, when women in Venezuela cannot feed their babies, and voluntarily leave them at orphanages so that at least they will not starve? How can I not be mindful of the mouthfuls I take each day, when so many mouths are empty?

See, when I remember that I am only dust, my heart of stone crumbles, and I see more clearly. 

I see more clearly that it is precisely our shared frailty that connects us, all of humanity together, in a sort of earthy solidarity: we ALL are dust. Seven billion of us and counting, inhabiting this planet we call Earth, and none of us is more or less important, more or less valuable, more or less worthy, more or less sinful. From dust we came, and to dust we return.

This is the great equalizer, the great truth of Ash Wednesday:

You are made of dirt, beloved earth-child. All of you. Every single one of you. You were individually fashioned with Divine intention: gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. You bear on your deepest self the fingerprints of the Almighty, and even now, the ridges and valleys of those fingerprints call out with the voice of the prophet Joel:

Return to the Lord.

Return to the One who made you, little earth-child, and confess your sins to the Lord who knows that you are dust. 

Tonight, may these ashes on our foreheads be for us a reminder that the Creator-of-the-Beautiful chose to sculpt humankind out of dust, out of beloved bits of earth and stars: and that the very breath of God connects us to each other. May we remember that God is not surprised by our humanity: that only we are ever taken by surprise by our own mortality and brokenness. And as we confess our sins together, may we remember that God, the Holy One, always welcomes our return.

Remember that you are dust, dear ones.