Think about dust.
We think about dust as something you clean up. If something sits around too long, it gets dusty.
My grandmother kept a really, really clean house. Not spec to be found anywhere. And I can remember that even in her house, on a bright sunny day, when the rays of light just poured into the room, I could see little bits of dust floating around in the air. I was little, so I didn’t get it but when I would point this out, she was not a happy woman. To her this was bad news, these little points of light floating around. To me, it was wondrous.
Think about dust.
It’s everywhere. Not just on our bookshelves but in the air. Have you ever seen a forest fire or a brush fire? What one notices is the smoke rising in the air and eventually the wind dissipates that smoke, but the ash and the unburned material in that smoke is blown about and goes everywhere.
Archeologists can look at layers of rock and find whole epochs that change from one era to another. And those dividing lines in the dust are defined by layers of ash.
It is said that the very building blocks of life might have arrived on this planet as dust that hitched a ride on some comet or meteor that then struck the earth. The meteors and comets themselves are nothing more than the dust and debris from the big bang itself.
When you think about dust, the image in Genesis of God forming us out of the dust of the earth and animating us with the breath of life is not so hard to imagine. We really are made of dust.
Typically on Ash Wednesday, Christians put ashes on our foreheads. But not this year. Everywhere the drawing of ashen crosses on foreheads is discouraged because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In some places, people are sprinkling ashes over the head and shoulders of penitents (in manner once done in the middle ages), in other places the celebrant draws the cross on her or his own forehead on behalf of the people, and in still other places, people are given little containers filled with ashes to impose on themselves.
I am kind of taken with the last choice. It seems to me that if we are going to sit, even for a day in the ashes of our truth, then it seems right that we should own it and do our own smudging.
But the idea of dust raining down on us puts me in mind of that cosmic dust ball that may have caused life itself to spring up, and this intrigues me, too.
Ritual notes for this day aside, putting on ashes is an old custom. At one time, not everyone in the Christian congregation placed ashes on their head, but only those who were acknowledging and confessing egregious sins. They made public their confession with these ashes. But in the Middle Ages, it became the practice for every Christian to submit to the ashes. The season of Lent became a time of public penitence for the whole church.
Today, the ashes mean these things, but many more. The ashes are a reminder of our origin from the earth. “Remember,” we say, “that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are not the self-assured, comfortable, live-forever people that we try so often to look like. We are going to die, all of us; we know that. Ashes are a sign of that ultimate reality.
The ashes are also, of course, a sign of sin. We are tainted, stained, by our constant falsehoods and wrong actions. We are a people who know better, but who make wrong choices. It was not someone else who made us do it. It was not the fault of Satan. We were not possessed by demons. It was not the fault of our parents. It was not the fault of society. It was not our peer group or the culture around us. It was us.
We are responsible. We have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
But today, I propose another meaning for these ashes. Out of these ashes, these signs of our mortal nature, comes something else. Once we recognize our own responsibility for wrongdoing, once we acknowledge our mortal and dusty nature, the ashes also become a sign of fertility.
If we are truly repentant, and truly cleansed, and open to the reality of God around us, then we are also fertile, ready to give growth to greatness.
When fires rage through a forest, everything is devastated. After a bad fire, everything is ruined. But over time, something miraculous happens. Trees that were thought to be dead sprout branches. Ground thought to be dead, brings out flowers and ferns and mosses and animals and birds. Soon a forest or a grassland devastated by fire becomes even more fertile and prosperous than before. The very ash makes for a richer soil. What was destroyed becomes the food for new life.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are, likewise, the burning and clearing of our Christian lives. We enter a time for confession, for penitence, for realization of our earthly nature. But this is also a fertile day, a time for self-examination and self-preparation. Today is getting us ready for something.
Just as ground is prepared in the Spring for luscious growth, today the ground of our lives, the soil of our souls, is being prepared. Maybe through our confession and mortal acknowledgement, we are emptied, opened, made ready for something. We will mark our lives with ashes, but they also point us to the resurrection we are preparing for this season. These ashes point to death. They also point to new life.
We are preparing our souls for the presence of God. We are going to do that by walking with Jesus to Jerusalem, by sharing in His passion and death, by sitting in the darkness of the tomb, and we will prepare for the new life to come.
But it takes time. It takes cultivation. The dense forest of our complicated lives is too thick. It is time to burn it away and make ready the fields for new growth.
Our God awaits our openness, our fertile ground. God comes into our lives with forgiveness, with deep love. Christians walk to the altar twice on Ash Wednesday. Once when we receive ashes, signs of our mortality and penitence. And Christians receive bread and wine, the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands, the signal and presence of Christ who has risen from the dead. We receive the sign of our mortal nature, but we also receive the sign of fertile and abundant life.