This is a reflection I shared at an evening Ash Wednesday gathering several years ago. We sat in a circle on the floor and placed the ashes on our neighbors’ foreheads and spoke these words to each other: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Today we gather in the evening, as the light fades to dimness and the dimness turns to black night. Today is a day which marks the beginning of a season of dimness, of dark light, a season of sparseness in food and drink, a season of quiet contemplation, a season of reflection on our sins and the sins of the communities to which we belong.
We commemorate the beginning of this season with a commandment: remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. This is a statement about the reality of who we are, the reality our humanness. We are dust. We are composed of the same particles as the rest of the Earth, the rest of this finite, ambiguous creation. We are skin, and hair, and bones. And this skin, hair, and bones are all tending toward death. Every moment of life, every breath is one closer to death. Sometimes we remember this when we are in intense pain, either emotional or physical, but sometimes even then (and perhaps especially then) we can block the reality of who we are and where we are going. We can anesthetize ourselves to these truths through consumption of drugs and alcohol, through mindless consumption of food, through hours wasted away on the internet or watching TV, We can anesthetize ourselves through distancing ourselves from our neighbors, or through total absorption in our daily routines of work and maintaining a house and children and whatever else we need to do on a daily basis. So tonight we put ashes on our bodies and we speak the words to each other, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”. We sit on the floor, close to the ground from which we were made and to which we will return. And we begin a season in which we intend to peel back some of those practices of consumption that distract us from the reality of our humanness. We intend now to open our hearts, to go into the inner room of our souls, shut the door, and pray. This is not so as to shut off the world, but rather to give us an opportunity to realistically examine where our joy lies—whether in our material possessions, in our activities of distraction, or in our activities of love and communion with others, in our communion with God. Upon examination we will likely find out that our joy has been ambiguously divided between those things we consciously value (like relationships of love) and those which we didn’t really realize we valued and would rather not value, perhaps even that which we are ashamed to value. The word for room in Matthew’s gospel indicates a particular kind of room in the house (Mt 6:1-6, 16-21)—it is an interior room, small and without windows used for food storage. Its purpose was to the food away from exposure to light in order to delay over ripening.
To shut oneself up in this kind of room requires a particular kind of courage. This is a season that requires much courage to face the darkness, to endure the lean time, to sit in the silence. Maybe this isn’t the kind of courage we are used to gearing up for. It is not the courage of an aggressive assault (on evil) or audacious witness (to the truth). It is a quiet, subtle courage which requires one to rend open (break open) one’s heart to God and to oneself the inner room of the soul yet still maintain an outward sense of normalcy—continuing to wash one’s face and “anoint one’s head with oil”, in other words, continue to go about the daily routines of taking out the trash, washing the dishes, whatever your normal, mundane activities are. It is the courage to wake up to the reality of oneself and your inevitable destiny. That you are dust and to dust you will return.
We break open our hearts and confess our sins this season for the sake of preparing ourselves to be better listeners. We fast, and we pray in this season in order to fashion ourselves in to better listeners. To listen to the reality of who we are as finite human beings and to the reality of who we are as sinful human beings, as a part of a sinful country, a sinful culture. Our prayer in this season does not take us to transcendent heights, floating above our finitude and our sinfulness. Our prayer and reflection take us deeper into the depths of our finitude, into the depths of our sinfulness. The ultimate purpose is surely transformation—the transformation of death into life, of finitude into an expansive embrace of the eternal God, of myopic concentration upon ourselves alone into compassionate hearts acting on behalf of justice for our neighbors—but these are not goals which can be rushed. They require slow and deliberate walking, of long hours awake in the darkness and listening to it. For we can only identify our own shortcomings if we have taken a long look at ourselves, we can only help our neighbor if we have first taken the time to listen to what she needs. Only after sitting in the darkness and listening to it will our light be able to “break forth like the dawn and our healing spring up quickly” (Isaiah 58:8). Often quick and thoughtless actions, i.e., acting as if healing or inspiration have arrived before they actually have, can create more harm than good. Slow down. Pare away. Peel back. Break open. Listen. Remember.