On Ash Wednesday these words are said as a smudge of ash is placed on a person’s forehead in the shape of a cross.
From dust you came and to dust you shall return…
We spend so much of our lives fighting the dust. The dust on our faces, the dust in our stories, the dust on our feet, and the final dust of our mortality.
We don’t want anyone to see that, in fact, we are mortal. We are human. We reach for the make-up, anti-aging cream, fad diet, anything that will help us “age well.” We strive to look young, flawless, and in control. We hide our blemishes. I didn’t screw up — they did. We blame. We point fingers. We find excuses. We cover it up. Nope, not me. I didn’t do it. Nobody saw me do it. You can’t prove anything.
On Ash Wednesday we are called to look in the mirror. To see our full human self. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. On Ash Wednesday we confess in public, no hiding, that we are sinners in need of a savior. On Ash Wednesday we face the reality that we don’t have it all together.
We see the dust on our face, in our stories, in our lives. We give up the facade. Ash Wednesday allows us to drop the mask and let out the breath that we have been holding as we try to keep it all together. Ash Wednesday is a space where we admit our struggles, our grief, our lament, our sinfulness, our brokenness, and our mortality. We give up the lie that we can control life, or the lie that we can control death if we just eat right, exercise more, or do this or do that.
Yet I think about Ash Wednesday 2011 when my 8-month-old baby, my first child, was marked with ashes on his forehead. What do you mean ‘from dust you came and to dust you shall return’? The last thing I want to see is his mortality. I’m the mom. I should be able to protect — to control. In this moment the honest truth of reality was staring back up at me. In the nine years since this moment I have witnessed that I can’t keep my son from pain, sadness, grief, or sin. However, when I allow him to be honest about his screw-ups, his pain, his fears, his sadness, he begins to know he is loved. When I make that same cross-shaped mark on his forehead when he goes to bed, I remind him that in that full honest space of his highs and his lows of his day he is a BELOVED CHILD OF GOD — NO MATTER WHAT. Ash Wednesday invites us into the sacred space of honesty before God and in community with one another.
Lent invites us to look in the mirror at our mortality and our humanity. Yes, we might look in the mirror and see some things we want to change. But it’s more about looking in the mirror and seeing what we can’t change. What we can’t control. It is giving ourselves over into our full humanity to admit that we need God. It is seeing in the reflection whose we are as a child of God. You see, God looked at that ash, that dust, and breathed into it life. God continues to look into the dust and ash-filled places of our life and be a God of redemption. God meets us in our ashy-dusty places of our lives filled with shame, grief, and brokenness and breathes into it grace, forgiveness, and love. On Ash Wednesday the dusty cross on our brow reminds us
“that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39
During Lent people may choose something to “fast” from, a.k.a., “give up.” What might it look like if we fast from needing to have it all together … Let go of the need to control … Take off the mask of perfection … Give up seeking trying to earn God’s love or our worth through proving how we are a good Christian.
On Ash Wednesday we receive the sign of the cross on our brow smudged in dust — not so we can go out and show the world what a great Christian we are. We receive the smudge so we might be reminded that we do not need to hide in our shame. We receive the ashes and we are reminded that no matter what we achieve we are still mortal. We receive the smudge in the shape of the redeeming cross, knowing that God breathed life into dust once, and in our human, broken, mortality God promises to meet us in that dust once again.
Feb. 26, 2020