For it is by grace that you were created from dust, and by grace you will be re-created.
A former Trappist monk wrote about his remembrances of Ash Wednesdays at the Abbey of the Holy Trinity Monastery. He remembered how the monks would walk barefoot through the stone church, keeping time to Gregorian chants, marching eventually into the old church where they received a daub of ashes on their foreheads.
The monk noted, It was cold at that time of year. As we walked we would try to step in the spots where someone had stepped before, to feel some warmth.
What a perfect illustration that is for Ash Wednesday. It reminds us that we have a Lord and Savior that has already walked ahead of us in the deserts of our lives, and we can always find warmth and direction by stepping where he stepped along the way.
If the ashes of Lent are only there to cause us to face our immortality, then I would suggest the church label the practice as Medieval and do away with it altogether. Contrary to the opinion of some, the practice of daubing ashes upon one’s forehead is not akin to hitting yourself on the head with a hammer because it feels good when you stop.
Ashes symbolize how little it takes for God to create something grand. Ashes tell us that, although walking in Jesus’ footsteps is not a walk in the park, there is still a reason to be hopeful.
If you have ever stood in the ruins of a burned out building, you know how hard it is to imagine rebuilding, but rebuilding is always possible especially with God. Ashes symbolize God’s constant recreation of creation. Ashes remind us that God always has the last word.
Ash Wednesday is a day when we can make our litany to God, when we can say, Here I am, imperfect. . . incomplete. . . weak. . . broken . . . sorrowful. . . hurting. . . sinner and saint all in one. Here I am, frightened and needy and uncertain. Here I am, knee deep in the flood waters, and my tent is nowhere to be found. Here I am, confessing and repentant. Here I am, sometimes looking very much like a burned out building. But because of the Grace of our God, we can also add, Here I am, looking for the fire of hope, the fire of forgiveness, the fire of love, the fire of salvation and wholeness. Here I am, just as I am. Mold me, make me, RE-CREATE ME!
The ashes of Ash Wednesday are often made by burning the dried palm crosses from Palm Sundays past. The cross, a symbol of death and darkness, is then turned into a symbol of possibility, of promise and intense love.
My wife, Kathy, and I once took a trip, during my sabbatical, to Death Valley during Holy Week. What a place of contrasts. I have laid on top of my sleeping bag near Furnace Creek, on a warm winter’s night, looking up at the cloud of stars when out of nowhere came a wind that took camping tents to a place where they were never seen again. I have been there when it was clear and sunny, and in a matter of literally minutes dark clouds gave way to gushes of rain that flooded everything around us.
Such was the wilderness of Judea in which Jesus walked in the Lent of his life. The wilderness is a risky, anxious and formidable place. While at the same time it is a place of rare though beautiful blooms.
Lent is not a time of self-loathing, it is a time when we are given permission to take our faith in to risky, anxious and formidable places knowing that Jesus has walked there ahead of us. It’s a time to be daring and to take a second look at those things that challenge us the most.
When I celebrated at Ash Wednesday services, I would carry the ashes to the altar rail and dispense them from the same shell I used to pour water over the foreheads of the baptized. Thus we say for all to hear that God’s cycle of floods and fair weather. . . of death and resurrection will repeat over and over and over again for eternity. It is the way of God’s world!
In the second account of the creation story God kneels on the ground and forms humanity from the dust of the soil.
Our God can breathe life into dust and ashes.
Let us welcome this holy season of Lent, this time of introspection and soul searching. Let us welcome the lenten wilderness ahead of us. Let us search for those rare and beautiful blooms. Lent is a time to search for the pearl of great price.
Lent is a time that reminds us to depend upon the wonderful Grace of God. When you hear those familiar and sometimes terrifying words, Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. perhaps might translate them in your mind’s eye as, For it is by grace that you were created from dust, and by grace you will be re-created.
May our God bless you in the journey!
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