Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6.10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
It is because of these paradoxes that we observe a period of solemnity and self-examination before Easter. It is too easy for us to live only in the extremes: to despair in our own sinfulness and unworthiness before an angry and avenging God, or to walk through life believing that with God on our side, nothing we do or fail to do matters. During Lent, we reflect on the reality that each of us is both sinner and saint, and that the whole Church itself is both the Body of Christ in the world, and yet can also be biggest obstacle to those who would follow Jesus.
This reality is why it is so important for us to smear these ashes on our foreheads and to hear these words: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We need to be reminded that whether we are inclined to think of ourselves too highly or too humbly, we are, in fact, not the center of the universe; we are dust. Even the Church—the Body of Christ—is not God. It is a human institution, a temple of dust. Dust is dust; it is not impressive, or powerful or important in and of itself. What makes the dust interesting is the living breath of God that fills it and makes it alive, that transforms it into human beings and a human community.
In the end, that’s why both Joel’s words and Jesus’ are appropriate for our worship this evening. As Joel says, it is good and right for us as a community to smear ash on our foreheads and publicly declare that we are fallible, mortal creatures. In a culture and a society that prizes strength and encourages self-certainty, we openly acknowledge our weakness and confess that we can be wrong. We are a reminder that people are imperfect; that we make mistakes and take wrong actions, and that sometimes we need to admit failure and ask forgiveness. In this way, God uses us to help teach the world how to repent.
At the same time, Jesus reminds us that our piety is not for the benefit of others or even for ourselves. The purpose of fasting, for example, is not to show how religious we are, nor is it even to prove to ourselves how obedient or strong-willed we can be. When we do these things, Jesus says, it is to strengthen our relationship with God, to help us be more in touch with the living breath that animates our dust. Likewise, we do not receive the ashes to make a point to ourselves or to anyone else about how humble or pious or spiritual we are; instead, the ashes are God’s reminder to us that we are dust, but that we are dust filled with God’s Spirit.
It is with this reminder smudged on our faces that we enter into Lent. We set aside our judgments about how well or poorly we or others might be following Christ and focus instead on Christ himself. That is to say, we take this time to try to see the forest through the trees, or the Spirit through dust, as it were. We look for Christ because he is the one who reveals God to us. As the one who created everything, we trust that God knows better than we do what will make all of creation happy and healthy, and that listening to God will show us how we can help bring about the wholeness and peace of God’s reign.
The dusty voices of the world can get in the way of following God; they call us ever towards the extremes. This year we will use our midweek gatherings to meditate upon the polarization we experience as human creatures, and those forces at work within and among us which drive us apart and cause us to fear one another. As those dusty voices call us apart, we will focus on the voice of God that calls us together and gives us hope for unity in the face of division and healing in the face of harm. Hopefully, we will come to Easter this year with a clearer sense of how God might be at work in us to bring healing and reconciliation in a world that is being pulled apart by fear and distrust.
We enter into this time of meditation and exploration in the same spirit as we bear these ashes tonight: to remove all that stands between us and God—sin, pride, shame, self-righteousness—and simply seek to live in deeper, fuller connection with the God who gives us our life, and who we trust to bring fuller, more abundant life to all creation. We enter into this season of Lent with its spiritual disciplines and unique liturgical practices to work on preparing ourselves for the work of God’s transformation; we seek to identify and put to death all that resists God within us so that from that death God may bring about in us new life.
We gather tonight to recognize our failures and remember our mortality so that we might see both our fragility and our resilience; we are dust, but we are dust animated by the breath of God. We as people may come and go, our organizations and institutions and congregations will rise and fall, but the Spirit of God at work in us remains forever.
We trust in that Spirit to continue to work through future generations of people until the work is complete and the reign of God is at hand. When it seems like that day will never come, but Lent is a reminder and a promise that all powers that oppose God’s reign, like us, are dust, and to dust they will return, and then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together (Isa 40.5a). After all, which will endure to the end: the dust, or the one who creates it and gives it life?