The Ash Wednesday Gospel is part of the Sermon on the Mount, which is nothing less than Jesus teaching a way of choosing life, a way of righteousness like the righteousness of God. And life, it turns out, is hard to choose. It looks like the refusal of violence, but violence is so seductive, so cathartic. It looks like a radical reconsideration of what’s ours to possess, when security is so easily justifiable. It looks like choosing mercy. It looks like choosing peace. It looks like being changed by love, so that the surrender to the call of love present in Jesus, becomes the pattern of our lives.
We want to do well. We want to do well so much that, even when we’re confronted with the reality that this is not what our lives look like, we take hold of the possibility that we could at least do well at admitting it, grieving that our aspiration to righteousness isn’t working out.
That desire to do well can create a kind of screen between us and those around us, and that hides us from ourselves.
This is why Jesus has so much to say in warning those who wanted to follow him about doing things like, say, marking their faces so that others can see they are fasting.
Where, then, is there blessing and possibility in this thing we’re gathered to do today with ashes?
Perhaps, for a blessed moment, to stop. To stop trying to do well, and stop trying to escape.
Made from dust, we are returning to dust. Right now the life-spring in our cells is uncoiling. We are creatures, made inextricable from bodies. We are blessed by God to live a while and then we die and, if we really sit down in it, most of the pious, romantic, sentimental things we say about death, shatter against it.
Sin is real, and we are bound up in it. We suffer it, and we wound God. We wound our brothers and sisters. We forget them. We craft stories in which their pain isn’t real, or in which they don’t exist at all.
There’s a place by the Cane River in Louisiana called Oakland, where, for generations, people were enslaved to grow cotton. I was there on a hot, empty day and the ranger and I stood and talked a long time, looking out across the fields to a far wood. Out there, somewhere, was a burying ground.
Among the enslaved had been man with extraordinary gifts as a blacksmith named Henry Solomon. He made what was needed on the place and, when the people of Oakland died, he fashioned wrought iron crosses, drawing the metal out into delicate tendrils, tendrils into hearts, to mark the graves. But nobody knows just where. In the 1930s, because she thought they would be fine decorations, a descendent of the people who owned the buried, pulled the crosses up to put in her garden.
Our days are like the grass…
When the wind goes over it, it is gone,
and its place shall know it no more.
In Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, he quotes the German painter Anselm Keifer saying, “I think there is no innocent landscape.” And that seems to be true, within and without.
Its hard to look at it, through our fear and shame over the inescapability of ourselves. We’re constantly selecting and arranging and interpreting evidence into stories, and those stories filter everything else that comes in, and that’s how we construct ourselves as persons.
To actually, faithfully, look at ourselves— to accept that we are seen and known by God, is to recognize that these are stories. To give them up, and accept that beneath them is something shockingly bare, is more vulnerability that we can, most of the time, stand. That’s why we need today.
Here’s the thing, and its the truth: you are dust. We are dust.
And what if you could just stand in that, in all the agonizing need of that, before the God who loves you; who’s merciful goodness pursues you; who knows whereof we are made; who remembers that we are that we are dust.
And there are much worse things to be than dust: inescapably of a piece, and bound into relationships, with all that God made and called good. We have been emplaced, given a home, and fellowship, and Christ calls us into memory of this.
You cannot be less than dust. And that does not mean that everything is alright. Things are broken. But the God of creation has come down into flesh, knowing what we are. God has chosen to become a part of this, bound into a body of dust, to fashion in us hearts unafraid to be blessed as what we are: the soil of creation.