Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the second Lent of the Great Pandemic of the early 21st century.
On Ash Wednesday, Christians go to church, pray a solemn liturgy, are marked on the forehead with the sign of a cross made from ashes as “a sign of our mortality and penitence.” As the ashes are imposed, a priest says to each person: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
The pandemic has made the traditional practice unworkable, as it involves close contact and in-person gathering. Thus, some churches have developed alternatives including drive-thru ashes and handing out baggies of ashes for self-imposition or sprinkling on one’s head.
But, I confess: the whole thing is wearying. How is Ash Wednesday really all that different from any other day in this interminable pandemic?
The entire year has felt like Lent, so today is just another ashy day.
I know that some will protest — saying that Lent is a specifically Christian season to prepare for Easter some forty days hence, that it is necessary for us to consider our death in order to understand the work of God in salvation.
When I say this entire year has felt like Lent, I’m not just saying that I’m tired of being introspective or don’t want to think about death. The point is that for more than a year now, that’s pretty much all I’ve done — reflect, pray, and read, mostly alone, all while worried that I might die, someone I love might die, or I’d unwittingly contribute (by my own carelessness) to someone else dying. Every time I put on a mask, I think of death and dying. In a year of a half-million deaths of other Americans and millions of people around the world, the Lenten discipline of contemplating mortality seems like one more painful day.
Add to that all the climate-related crises of fire, ice, water, and wind that have killed far too many people this year, and we don’t need ashes to remind us that the world is heavy with sorrow, and that much that we love is being lost and is ending. Every single day is an exercise in mortality, as we see our dusty illusions of existence coming at us like a haboob in the desert.
Frankly, I don’t need the church to remind me that I’m surrounded by death this year. I know that. Everyone I know knows that. We are covered in dust.
Dust. Ashes. I know these things. I grew up in Arizona. I know what its is like to see the dust coming at sixty miles an hour with nowhere to go, to turn away from the dust to keep it out of your eyes, to feel your back blasted with stinging sand. I’ve lived in California. I know what it is like to see a hillside on fire, to know when to run so one isn’t incinerated, to walk in ashy landscapes of death. Dust and ash aren’t merely reminders of death — dust and ash are death.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
The church has always emphasized this verse (taken from Genesis 3:19) as penitence in anticipation of death. You came from nothing, you return to nothing. The starkest of all reminders of fleeting existence, the ever-present reminder of death. But the verse also points another direction — not toward death but toward creation. In Genesis 3:6-7 (a poetic account of the beginning), a spring wells up on the dusty earth. From the resulting clay, God fashioned a man, breathed on him, and thus created humankind: The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
Dust may be our ending, but it was also our beginning. Dust and ash are the stuff of creation.
Deserts do bloom. Charred landscapes birth new forests. From dust and ash come flowers and trees and fruitful fields. Dust is not nothing; ash is not nothing. Dust and ash are necessary for life. Repentance isn’t the point. Recognizing the circle of creation, the connectedness of all existence — that is the point.
Somehow, in this miserable pandemic, this endless season of death, even this dust and ash will become the humus of new life, a recreation of who we are, what we do, and how we love. This Lent, I await the spring rising from the parched ground, and I wonder how we are being fashioned into a new people. I’m looking for water in this dry land. I’ve had quite enough of death. I’m longing for life.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
— Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
I imagine Lent for you and for me as a great departure from the greedy, anxious antineighborliness of our economy, a great departure from our exclusionary politics that fears the other, a great departure from self-indulgent consumerism that devours creation. And then an arrival in a new neighborhood, because it is a gift to be simple, it is a gift to be free; it is a gift to come down where we ought to be.
― Walter Brueggemann
It is my Lent to break my Lent,
To eat when I would fast,
To know when slender strength is spent,
Take shelter from the blast
When I would run with wind and rain,
To sleep when I would watch.
It is my Lent to smile at pain
But not ignore its touch.
It is my Lent to listen well
When I would be alone,
To talk when I would rather dwell
In silence, turn from none
Who call on me, to try to see
That what is truly meant
Is not my choice. If Christ’s I’d be
It’s thus I’ll keep my Lent.
— Madeleine L’Engle, For Lent 1966