Today, we begin our yearly Lenten pilgrimage, a pilgrimage that takes us from the beginning as dust of the earth, into which God breathes life, to where we are now, joining Jesus for 40 days, in temptation and hope. It all starts with ashes.
Ashes on our foreheads reminding us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. In those ashes are our acts of self-examination and repentance, of our beginning this Lenten journey in humility and hope. Ashes that were once palm branches held up in triumph at Jesus entry into Jerusalem last Palm Sunday, many turning into Palm Crosses and Jesus journey to death. Palms burned this past Sunday and turned into ashes.
So with these ashes, we are marked as human, as dust of the earth, placing ourselves with all of humanity& creation.
“A person is a person through other persons” is how Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it. “None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are.”We don’t live into our humanity in a vacuum or alone. We journey with others. This year, those ashes aren’t there for our new growth, our own fruitful lives alone. They are for the betterment of all creation.
Our service on Ash Wednesday calls us to repentance for we have not loved God with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not repented of our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people, nor of our waste and pollution of God’s creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.
There is sin and much to repent of (Lent!) but those ashes are not a scarlet mark for us to be shamed by, but to live into hope. As the author Stephanie Paulsell put it:
“The smeared crosses on our foreheads are an incarnational work of art that helps us confront our greatest fears. When we are marked with ashes we are marked not only with a sign of our mortality but also with a sign of the struggle to remain human under the greatest possible pressure. We follow Jesus into the desert of Lent to learn about the most mysterious possibilities that our humanity holds: healing, resistance, love, and forgiveness. Again and again, year after year, he teaches us that human life holds more possibilities than we’ve ever imagined.”In his poem for Ash Wednesday, the Poet Malcom Guite, reminds us of our need for repentance and renewal of the sinfulness and destruction of God’s creation by our hands.
Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,In these ashes are hope, hope that could rise from the sign of the cross upon each of our brows.
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognize in Christ their Lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.
So let us work this Lent, let us repent of our actions and words that hurt, let us renew our world with acts of kindness and generosity, let us walk with creation and believe anew what our gracious God can do in us:
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge we bear.
(poem by Jan Richardson)Amen.