Ash Wednesday

Lent never starts at the right time. It always comes as an interruption—an unwanted interruption. When did you last hear someone saying, “I can’t wait for Lent”? Or think to yourself, “I wish Ash Wednesday were here!” No, we are just getting used to ordinary time and a rhythm of life when the whistle blows and we are wrenched from our routine and dragged here to dirty our faces right in the middle of the busy business of our lives.
Lent always begins from outside: we never choose it, but it won’t be avoided. They are blowing that trumpet, they’re proclaiming a fast, gathering the people. They are urging us on to an urgency we don’t feel, to a repentance we hardly want, before a God we scarcely trust. And we don’t even get a day off!
But we come. Here we are! … We come for ashes. Churches fill to the brim for those ashes. We’ve sought larger premises on account of those ashes. And I’m not sure why. In another assembly we might suspect superstition. … Maybe we just like beginnings. Or maybe we brave the embarrassment of walking, black-browed, down the street simply out of habit. … But I like to think our bodies know better than our minds about these matters: that dust is calling to dust.

Why does God finally pay attention and take pity on the people in that last line of the Joel reading? … “The LORD was stirred to concern for the land … and took pity on the people.” For the land. I get the impression that God hardly notices all that trumpeting and fasting and assembling, until God notices the land. And I wonder … maybe it’s only our kinship with earth that gets us noticed. Is that why we come here year after year—to be soiled: with ash, with dust, with the dirt of the land? Not as camouflage but as beacon. “See Lord the land and have pity on your people!”

Today to celebrate our kinship with dirt. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are dust, we are dirt, we are ash, we are earth. We are earthlings, creatures formed from the dust and the spittle of God. We are children of Adam—earth creature—which was our communal description before ever it was a personal name.
We are made of earth; we are made for earth. Earth is what joins us and makes us one. It is what we share. It is soil that unites us to each other, to every other creature of earth, to this very planet, and even to the stars—since every atom of our bodies is dust and ash of long dead suns. Even here on earth, every atom of our bodies has been used before, countless times, in other bodies; other humans, other creatures. We breathe the breath of Shakespeare and Stalin. There is, literally, a little of Jesus in all of us—and something of the slime-mold.
The dust of DNA tells the same story. Of all the genes that makes us who we are, there are only a few hundred that aren’t shared with mice. Only a few tens to set us apart from apes. Down that deep our human differences disappear. Yet you would look at our divisions and think we were from different planets.
Haven’t we always been uppity creatures. Since our clay was first fashioned we’ve been struggling to climb out of the dirt and forget where we come from. We have two faults. We like to dress up … and we like to go it alone.
We like to dress up. We cover our clay with finery. To hide our origins in the soiled earth behind whatever mask we can find. To put on an alien face for the God who made us and project an image for all to see; one endless diversionary tactic lest we be revealed for who we are. I reckon the original sin is not so much Pride as Shame. We were thrown out of Eden and we’ve been in the closet ever since.
Maybe that’s why we like to go it alone? So as not to see, in the mirror of another’s eyes, our own nakedness or the tawdriness of our make up. But we are not alone. For the sake of the soil God took pity on the people. We do two things today when, together, we accept on our foreheads the mark of our making: we accept our humble origin and we accept that we are one people.

This is our beginning, this Lent. Our end is some weeks away, with Jesus and that awkward drama of Holy Week. But what we do in between is what matters. The temptation is to dress up to be ready. But whether it’s good deeds, or giving up, or getting clean, we need to be careful our Lenten trajectory matches Jesus’ own—with all its downward mobility. Or when we get to Holy Week we’ll be floating miles above the one we want to stand beside. Whatever comes later, Lent is the season of his failing flesh and his humble return to dust.
Let us fall back on humility this Lent: let us be humus, human. To be human is to be something made, very well made, and made of the same stuff as all other things. Made from dirt and made for a humble beauty God longs for us to accept. We are just soil—soil singing a song of reconciliation for all creatures.