On Sunday, as I listened to the prayer for the burning of the palms, I had a strong sense of being moved slowly, but inexorably, out of Epiphany and into Lent. I am grateful that the church in her wisdom knows that like the apostles on the mountain of Transfiguration, we need to be encouraged to move on to the next thing God wants us to experience.
The obvious thing that we learn on Ash Wednesday, and continue to contemplate throughout Lent is what we hear a dozen times as we kneel and the clergy go down the line, imposing ashes: Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We tend to forget we are dust, until something happens to pull us up short--like an illness, or an unexpected event that shakes us out of every-day-ness.
This reminder that we are mortal can seem ominous. I remember walking in the colonial cemetery near the house where I grew up. There were sayings on the gravestones: like “Together for Eternity” on a married couple’s stone. Or the oddest: “Behold me now as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I, as I am now, so you shall be. Prepare your life and follow me.” YIKES! Did this come from one of those Victorian gothic novels?
But in fact, the cemetery was a peaceful and serene place, and very beautiful. It was deeply carpeted with creeping thyme that had escaped from the Shaker gardens nearby. Walking on it through the rows of stones gave comfort to tired feet, spicy fragrance to the nose, and the glory of an acre of tiny purple-red flowers, above the glittering green leaflets.
Surely, if God wanted to walk in a garden on a still summer afternoon, it would be in this garden, filled with honeybees. I am certain that the Holy One is very fond of it, and I often felt the Divine Presence there as a child.
Like Ash Wednesday does, it gives me pause to think of a place dedicated to mortality as a place of beauty and comfort. Every year, I am tripped up by the Episcopal Church’s collect for Ash Wednesday. It begins: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made.” HATE????? God hates or does not hate???? What a relief to know that God does not hate our mortal selves. God does not hate the plants that grow strong and then fade away only to spring back after the winter is done. God does not hate the dry and barren desert that explodes into bloom after a rain. God does not hate the rocks that crumble into sand and create lovely soft beaches. “You hate nothing you have made.”
God MUST be English. What an unbelievable understatement! Not only does God not hate what God has made, God apparently loves it so much that God decided to become part of it! God chose to put on a body like ours, created of dust, and subject to all the infirmities of that dust, including even temptation. And sorrow. And pain. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop, he was wearing that body of dust. When at his baptism, the heavens opened and the voice of God called him the Beloved Son, he was wearing that body of dust. How wonderful and how awe-inspiring that God loved us in our mortality enough to allow the Son to assume mortal flesh. What a miracle! In some ways, the Incarnation is more miraculous to me than the Resurrection. I can understand God resurrecting the Son. I find it harder to fathom God wanting to become mortal human.
Part of what Ash Wednesday is about is recognizing who we are and who we are not. There’s an old joke about a parson who is constantly complaining to God about the state of the world, and informing God about how to fix it. Eventually the Almighty gets tired of hearing him. In the middle of one of the parson’s rants, a huge booming voice rings out: “John.” “Yes, Lord,” says the man, feeling satisfied that finally God is here to talk to him in person. “John,” roars the Voice again. “Just one thing. I am God, and you…are not.”
The Ash Wednesday Prayer over the People says, “Grant, most merciful Lord, to your faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve you with a quiet mind." What gives us a quiet mind? It is achieving an Ash Wednesday state: awareness and acceptance of the reality that we are indeed wonderfully and fearfully made, but that we are fallible humans and we are not God. This is also a definition of true humility, knowing and accepting that reality. We become unquiet when we are dissatisfied with who and what we are, and begin reaching and grasping for something else. Even more, we become unquiet when we won’t recognize that we sin, and need forgiveness over and over.
As we begin Lent by confessing our sins, receiving absolution, and being reminded that we are dust, let us find comfort in the knowledge that that is all we need to be. We don’t have to be God. God made this beautiful dust, and rejoices in it. God longs for us to find peace in what we have been created to be: beloved children and heirs. St. Seraphim once said, “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.” May that peace reign in us and spread throughout the world.