Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Today we start our annual journey into the wilderness of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection. We fast and pray for forty days in his example of his desert wanderings and temptation. This is our season of ashes and covered crosses, of abstaining from alleluias and chocolate and baptisms and booze. This is a somber time when we accept the Christian tradition’s invitation to serious reflection and repentance, to mind-body-spirit preparation for death and life that we will experience in Holy Week. The Lenten preparation, this deep soul work of putting reflection into practice day after day, is especially important to deepening our faith and connection to the heart of the gospel, to the life and death of Jesus because, unlike the story of gospels, which leads one chapter to the next, from Gethsemane to the empty garden tomb, our lives, our journeys of suffering and death and resurrection, aren’t linear. Our liturgical observance captures a bit of this winding road. Throughout lent, throughout the season of repentance, of reckoning with our limits and mortality and failure, each Sunday is still a celebration of Easter, still our resurrection feast each week. And of course, we all know the days of reckoning with our limits and mortality, of hitting bottom and coming to deep repentance, don’t just happen during the appropriate season of lent, and we acknowledge this in the church, too, when we repent and grieve and reflect together all year round.
Days of hurt and loneliness, those terrible Good Fridays, come when we least expect them. Days of emptiness and uncertainty, Holy Saturdays, pop up in our lives. But those Easters! The Easters come, too, don’t they? Sometimes they’re small, like the same old narcissus coming up in the yard again this year. And sometimes the Easters are glorious, life-changing: reconciliations and births and prison releases and remissions and falling in love. Not only is there no rhythm to them, but the Good Fridays and the Holy Saturdays and the Easter Sundays will sneak up on us all at the same time.
Like when you’re holding the newest baby in your family, and even though he’s been gone for years, you see your dad. His eyes have skipped generations and shown up on this little girl’s face, and you are so full of gladness for her and missing him terribly at the same time so that you can’t breathe? Or the feeling when you’re in the rubble of an ended relationship, figuring out what the new normal looks like, and one day realize with bittersweet satisfaction that your own solitary company is very good company. Or all those triumphs and setbacks of the journey of recovery, that slow healing of all tangled up pain and victory and knowing, practicing, that the key is in holding it all much more loosely than you want to.
We gather today and enter together into this season of honoring these good and hard things, life’s frightening and vulnerable things, of repenting, of doing our inner work with God. We do this so that we can be strengthened and grounded, more able to recognize that in the ordinary and extraordinary jumbled moments of death and resurrection, God is present with us. God is at work, and calling us to God’s work. We enter into the suffering and the death and in the resurrection with Christ himself.
Our experiences of death and the resurrection are always all together. And God knows this about us. God made these lives of jumbled up death and resurrection. The ashes are for us, not for God. We’re the ones who need the reminder. The Gospel reading makes clear that Jesus isn’t asking us to disfigure ourselves in prayer. God doesn’t need us here, kneeling and marked with the grave. Psalm 134 says it so tenderly: “God knows how we were made; God remembers that we are dust.” But we need to remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return. We need to remember that on our own we are small, we are frail and failing.
This reminder, this mark of our dustiness, is something for us to pat ourselves on the back for, be proud of having been in church today. And it’s not so that we go about feeling terrible for ourselves. It’s not a sign of pride, but it’s also not meant to get us stuck in shame. Because remember? The Easters are all tangled up in the Lents and the Good Fridays.
When we know that resurrection life and death are always tied together, our practice of remembering our death, remembering our failures in repentance, can be, more than anything, a practice of trust. By taking this step of remembering we are dust, we are calling on God’s mercy with confidence, the psalmist says, in God’s steadfast love. We can take on the daunting work of the fast, entrusting our treasure and our hearts to God, because God is our understanding creator, our loving parent. We can bravely accept Isaiah’s call to loose the bonds of injustice because we know that the task of breaking yokes of oppression happens only with the guidance and strength of God’s Spirit, our constant companion. We can venture into the unspeakably vulnerable territory of speaking our sin and shortcomings because love divine is waiting for us in the wilderness, and that love divine wants us to be free, healed, and whole.
We don’t face our sin and stare down our death for the sake of sin and death. Sure, the ashes represent this, but they also point us to so much more. The poet Jan Richardson nudges us to thinking differently about our ashes. In an Ash Wednesday poem, she asks her readers, “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?”
“Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” The psalmist knew. When we remember we are dust, when we repent of our wrongdoing and turn to God to make us whole, God will teach us wisdom, restore us to joy, and make us living declarations of praise, of love and mercy.
“Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” The prophet knew. When we remember we are dust, when we let go our ambitious grasping to make space for neighbors in need, God will satisfy all our needs and rebuild us, and our light shall rise in the darkness.
Richardson’s poem goes on to say,
let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not by false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust.
Today, let us be marked by repentance, a repentance full of trust and hope. Yes, come and be marked by death, but a death that’s always, always pointing to resurrection. Let us be marked by what God can do with the dust.