A Time of Dust

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Many Christians will hear these words today as their foreheads are marked with a cross of ashes, connecting us to a tradition first developed in the 8th-10th centuries. Ash Wednesday calls us to some of the essential spiritual practices that all Christians share: self-examination, repentance, prayer, sharing with those in need, and fasting. And, as my opening phrase reminded us: Ash Wednesday is also a day to remember our own mortality.

We probably don’t need that reminder right now.

If two years of social distancing, mask mandates, vaccines, boosters, loved ones in hospital, and daily infection and death tolls weren’t enough – now our conversations are filled with talk of Ukraine’s suffering, of “wars and rumors of wars.”

But if we don’t need the extra reminder, we do need a holy space to come together. A space to acknowledge the suffering around us, our fears of the future, our lack of control. A space to do this in God’s light. This is what Ash Wednesday provides for us.

The cross of ashes on our foreheads reminds of our human frailty, our need for forgiveness, our mortality.  It connects us to an ancient biblical tradition of repenting by marking oneself with ashes. As Job once said: “I…repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

Ashes also connect us to a biblical tradition of grieving and lamenting. When a person was going through something terrible (think Tamar, the Jewish people in the story of Esther) – often they responded by wallowing and wailing in ashes.

To add one more layer: the most striking elements of Ash Wednesday – ashes and fasting – are connected to asking God for something especially powerful. Esther called a three-day total fast before she met with the king to try to save her people. When Daniel found out that the city of Jerusalem was about to fall, he wrote: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). In these stories, fasting is a form of especially intense prayer – as if they are praying with their whole bodies.

Because of these many meanings of Ash Wednesday traditions – the human condition, lament, and desperate prayer – Pope Francis has lifted up this Ash Wednesday as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in response to the violence in Ukraine. Here at the Chapel we join in lifting up this day of prayer and fasting, adding our prayers to those of people around the world in a show of love and care that flies in the face of those who make war.

How can we participate in a day of prayer and fasting for peace? Some ideas to get us thinking:

  1. Could we include Ukraine in our daily prayers? 
  2. If we’re already giving something up for Lent, would it fit into our spiritual practice to dedicate that fast as a prayer for peace?
  3. Today, could we give up something – a snack, an indulgence, meat – and lift up that fast as a prayer for peace?

Finally, I’m going to add one more meaning to Ash Wednesday. The cross of ashes that many of us will receive today traces the cross that was marked on our foreheads at our baptism. In my traditon’s baptismal liturgy, I literally trace a cross with oil on the baptized person’s forehead and say: “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

It’s a reminder that in our baptism, we have already died and risen with Christ. It’s a reminder that we are claimed by the one who is victorious over death. It’s a reminder of the central story of our faith: that God makes a way through death and back to life.

…for love is strong as death,

passion fierce as the grave.

Its flashes are flashes of fire,

a raging flame.

Many waters cannot quench love,

neither can the floods drown it. (Song of Solomon 8:6b-7a)

May God’s strong love strengthen you and give you peace. Amen.

Prayer for Ukraine during the invasion of enemies

From the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, translated by Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

O Lord our God, You are the One God in heaven and on earth, You command all kingdoms and nations, strength and power are in Your hands, and no one can resist You. You sit on the cherubim and the seraphim praise You ceaselessly; how can a human oppose You? Incline Your ear, Lord, and hear; look down with Your eyes and see the evil intentions of our enemies. We believe that You alone are merciful and strong, and that You can deliver us from their hands. You saved Your servant David from the hands of the mighty one, once again showing that Your strength is in weakness, and You accepted the sorrow of Hezekiah’s heart, giving him more additional years of life. Give peace and tranquility to Your God-loving people, and do not forsake us because of our sins. For we remember the words of the Savior, Your Only-Begotten Son and our Lord Jesus Christ: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Therefore, we do not rely on our weapons, but we place our hope on You alone, knowing Your power. You work wonders, and from You come victory and defeat. Grant to Ukraine a deep and eternal peace, protecting us from war and invasion of enemies, and giving every good thing for the benefit of soul and body. For You are the God of mercy, the King of peace and the Savior of our souls, and to You we send glory, with Your Only Begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Praying for Ukraine: Special Events this week

March 2, 2022

Pr. Kate

Rev. Katherine Museus Dabay takes turns writing weekly devotions with Rev. James A. Wetzstein at Valparaiso University, where both serve as university pastors.