Ash Wednesday

Lent never starts at the right time. It always comes as an unwanted interruption. When did you last hear someone saying, “I can’t wait for Lent”? Or think to yourself, “I wish Ash Wednesday would hurry up!” 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 our busy pursuit of more important things.
Lent always comes from outside: we never choose it. Yet it won’t be avoided. Someone is blowing that trumpet; someone’s 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 time off!
But we come. Here we are! … We come for ashes. Churches worldwide fill to the brim for those ashes. 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 that reading from Joel? … Listen! “The LORD, jealous for the sake of the land took pity on the people.” For the sake of the land! You 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 at all. 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 talisman: our version of the Passover blood. “See, Lord, the land, and have pity on your people!”
Today we 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 dust and the spittle of God. We are children of Adam—which meant, simply, earth creature before ever it became a personal name.
We are made of earth; we are made for earth. 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 heavens—since every atom of our bodies is dust and ash of long dead suns. And even here on earth, every atom of our bodies has been used before, countless times, in other bodies; human, animal, insect. We breathe the very breath of Shakespeare and Stalin. There is, literally, a little of Jesus in all of us—and something of the slime-mold.
But haven’t we always been uppity creatures. Since our clay was first fashioned we’ve been struggling to climb out of the dirt and clean up our act. We do so like to dress up; we cover our clay with finery; we hide our origins in the soiled earth under whatever mask we can find. We put on a polished 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—and who we’ve always been. I reckon the original sin is not so much Pride as Shame. Shame! We were thrown out of Eden and we’ve been in the closet ever since. … But for the sake of the soil God took pity on the people—remember that!
So, 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 is good deeds, or giving up, or getting clean, we need to be careful our Lenten trajectory matches Jesus’ own, 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 first the season of his failing flesh and his own return to dust.
So let us fall back on humility this Lent: let us be humus, human. To be human is to be something made, and made of the same stuff as all other things. Made from dirt for a humble beauty God longs for us to accept. We are after all just soil—but soil singing a song of reconciliation for all creatures. Let us bear the mark of our making with humble pride.