Reflections on ashes and dust: themes from Ash Wednesday & Lent

Ash Wednesday is the starting point of Lent. We are marked with ashes as we begin the season. We go from feasting to a season of fasting, praying, and giving.

Or perhaps we can think of Lent as a season of personal training, of discipline and preparation, to return to spiritual fitness. It’s a time when, through confession, we admit and wrestle with our issues, vulnerabilities and weaknesses … and get to know ourselves better. We seek healing and balance.

This is also an opportunity to understand that we are beloved for whom we are: messy and imperfect and broken. Just as we are beloved for whom we may become. Because the gift of this season, ultimately, is grace. We can prepare, we can focus … yet we cannot earn the boundless love toward which we are reaching. It is simply offered to us, regardless of how perfect or imperfect we are. Just because.

Ashes symbolize mortality, as well as humility and contrition. The proudest members of society, in many faith traditions, don sackcloth and wear ashes as signs of humility, to express sorrow, or to demonstrate a desire for reconciliation and forgiveness. Ashes represent, like “dust to dust”, our elemental origins and remind us that our bodies will return to the earth. Within our faith, we also believe that while our bodies are formed from organic materials, our living selves are filled up with and energized by Breath, Wind, or Holy Spirit, which animates life and connects all of us.

Traditionally, people receive ashes today, Ash Wednesday, as a smudge or cross on the forehead. We come to this season in a messy way, wearing our imperfection on our faces. Messy, sad, sorry, tired, angry, grateful, hopeful, happy, curious … we enter into this time of preparation, on the journey toward Easter.

A Few Creative Countdowns and Resources
as we start the Lenten season

Common Dust — Georgia Douglas Johnson
And who shall separate the dust
What later we shall be:
Whose keen discerning eye will scan
And solve the mystery?
The high, the low, the rich, the poor,
The black, the white, the red,
And all the chromatique between,
Of whom shall it be said:
Here lies the dust of Africa;
Here are the sons of Rome;
Here lies the one unlabelled,
The world at large his home!
Can one then separate the dust?
Will mankind lie apart,
When life has settled back again
The same as from the start?
Of Dust & Ashes: Christian Commentaries

We are entering the season that begins with a smudge. That smudge is a testimony to what survives. It is a witness to what abides when everything seems lost. It is a sign that what we know and love may, for a time, be reduced to dust, but it does not disappear. We belong to the God who well knows what to do with dust, who sees the dust as a place to dream anew, who creates from it again and again. Life will continually lay us bare, sometimes with astonishing severity. In the midst of this, the season of Lent invites us to see what is most elemental in us, what endures: the love that creates and animates, the love that cannot be destroyed, the love that is most basic to who we are. This season inspires us to ask where this love will lead us, what it will create in and through us, what God will do with it in both our brokenness and our joy. — Jan Richardson, Painted Prayerbook

Let’s reframe that old nursery rhyme that we all learned as kids. “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” we sang, not aware that the ditty was birthed in the time of the Great Plague where so many fell down to death. This Ash Wednesday, why not sing, “Ashes, ashes, we all stand up” for those who need us, the poor, the oppressed … And a happy and a challenging Ash Wednesday to you! — John Holbert

I am grounded when I go out in nature and get reconnected with God’s creation. For God created the dust, the animals, the air, the plants. … placed all of this beauty around us to treasure and care for … so often, we go through our lives and ignore it. — C Gibson

Here’s my image of Ash Wednesday: If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. The water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the past and future to meet us in the present. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God: That we are God’s, that there is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life. That where two or more are gathered, Christ is with us. These promises outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time. — Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints

Improv on 1 Corinthians 13
for Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day (excerpt)

— Maren Tirabassi

… Ashes are awkward; ashes are dirty; ashes, like love, are not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude.
Ashes do not insist on a perfect Lent;
they do not even need to be in church
or a gimmick to get folks to church;
they do not inventory wrongdoing,
especially the wrongdoing of others,
but rejoice in the precious now,
the very fragility of life.

Ashes bear love, believe in love,
hope in the possibility
of forgiveness for everyone,
endure even times of lovelessness.

Forgiveness never ends.
As for spiritual practices,
they will come to an end;
as for both the precious hymn
and the passionate praise song,
they will grow quiet;
as for theology and faith formation,
believe me, they will change again.

For churches are always reaching
for a part of things,
while those who flee church
reach for another part,
but, when the full forgiveness comes —
it will look more like Valentine’s Day.

When I was a child, I said “I love you.”
I cut out pink and red hearts,
and gave them to everyone, even the bullies,
but when I became an adult,
I decided to make it more complicated.

Now in our churches and lives
we have become too fond of mirrors,
but some day we will see —
face to smudged face.
Now I love only in part;
then I will love fully,
even as I have been fully loved.

Today ashes, dust, and paper abide,
these three;
but the greatest of these makes a heart.

Of Dust: Other Perspectives

If the cosmos exists,
then the smallest speck
of dust exists.
If the smallest speck
of dust doesn’t exist,
then the whole cosmos
doesn’t exist.
— Zen poet, Ly dynasty, Vietnam

A speck of dust contains the whole universe. If we were as big as the sun, we might look down at the earth and see it as insignificant. As human beings, we look at dust in the same way. But the ideas of big and small are just concepts in our minds. Everything contains everything else; that is the principle of interpenetration. This sheet of paper contains the sunshine, the logger, the forest, everything, so the idea that a sheet of paper is small, or insignificant, is just an idea. We cannot destroy even one sheet of paper. We are incapable of destroying anything. When they assassinated Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, they hoped to reduce them into nothingness. But these people continue to be with us, perhaps even more than before, because they continue in other forms. We, ourselves, continue their being… — Thich Nhat Hahn

The Universe is a very dusty place. Cosmic dust consists of tiny particles of solid material floating around in the space between the stars. It is not the same as the dust you find in your house but more like smoke with small particles varying from collections of just a few molecules to grains of 0.1 mm in size. Dust is important because we find lots of it around young stars. In fact it helps them to form, and it is also the raw material from which planets like the Earth are formed. — Herschel Space Observatory

Amongst his signs is this, that he created you from dust. — Sura 30:20, Qu’ran

Say I Am You
— attributed to Rumi
I am dust particles in sunlight.
I am the round sun.
To the bits of dust I say, Stay.
To the sun, Keep moving.
I am morning mist, and the breathing of evening.
I am wind in the top of a grove, and surf on the cliff.
Mast, rudder, helmsman, and keel,
I am also the coral reef they founder on.
I am a tree with a trained parrot in its branches.
Silence, thought, and voice.
The musical air coming through a flute,
a spark of a stone, a flickering in metal.
Both candle and the moth crazy around it.
Rose, and the nightingale lost in the fragrance.
I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy,
the evolutionary intelligence, the lift,
and the falling away. What is, and what isn’t.
… You the one in all, say who I am. Say I am You.

 

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