We mortals are in an odd and tremendous place. We reach for eternity; we know somehow, deep within, that there is more somewhere – more love, more peace, more abundant life. We glimpse stars that seem to be within our grasp, and we cannot help but reach for them.
And at the same time, we are limited. Our bodies sometimes betray us, our insight is often clouded, our wills are not always equal to the desire for good, and sometimes our very desire for good has withered away.
In every moment, something in us yearns for the sacred, but we often try to deaden or turn away from that hunger. Our death is never very far from our awareness, but we make endless and dangerous attempts to avoid facing mortality. The truth is, we cannot escape this tension, and even if we could, avoidance would not save us. Our freedom lies in looking it all square in the face – death and limitedness, life and sacredness – and waiting to see what deep joy might come. Our deliverance comes in tenderly holding the ashes and daring to wait for new life to rise from those ashes.
On Ash Wednesday, we gather as communities to be marked with ashes. We dare to say what the world often denies – we are limited and will die. And because we have the audacity to say that, we also dare to say what the world often does not have the courage to say – we will wait to see what life springs forth, and we will wait together, because the Holy One is not finished with this world yet.
This is the first day of Lent, a time when we walk with Jesus in some of his most human hours, and we experience that the holiness of God understands and loves us. The God of the universe knows what it’s like to have a body, to be tempted by sin and bound by limitation. The God of all time and space meets us, walks this hard road, and beckons us to be his companions.
The story is told that Rabbi Simcha Bunam urged us each to keep two papers in our pockets at all times. One has written on it, “For my sake the world was created.” The other has written on it, “I am but dust and ashes.”
Today, we pull out the second piece of paper, we confess our sin and failures, we are aware of our finiteness, and we worship God in her abundant mercy. But as we walk into Lent, may we keep both of these papers in our pockets that we might travel this Jesus-road with fortitude and love.
And so we confess, not to heap on ourselves the weight of our wrong, but that we may be broken wide open to the love that God wants to pour into us.
We are reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return – not merely to acknowledge that we fear our mortality but to bear witness with our bodies that God sweeps us and all creation up into the cosmic story of redemption, even in our limitedness.
We are marked with ashes not because we are wretches but because we are beloved and are called to turn ever back toward God.
We journey with Jesus in Lent, not because death is all around, but because new life is even now springing from the ashes.
God, bless these ashes, these confessions, these bodies, minds, and hearts.
Accomplish in us the work of your salvation, that we may be living vessels of your love and mercy.
Free us from our sins and turn us around to face you, that we may be co-creators with you of your new community of peace.