For a while, us Baby Boomers lived in the garden, never expecting to grow old. We hoped that the “better living through chemistry” that inspired our spiritual adventures in the 60s and 70s would continue on into our 60s and 70s and bring us similar medications to prolong the fountain of youth. But alas, Baby Boomers, too, are discovering their mortality.
A Jewish saying counsels that each person should have a note in each pocket. In one pocket, the note should announce “For you the universe was created.” In the other, “You are dust.” These days I am daily aware of the dustiness of life in my own body and in the lives of dear friends. Over the past year, several of my friends have been diagnosed with life-threatening cancers. One of my closest friends, with whom I have journeyed and grown for over forty years, recently died brain cancer. Funerals and memorial services characterize my work at South Congregational Church (UCC) in Centerville, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. As a pastor, relative, and friend, I don’t need anyone to remind me of the fragility and uncertainty of life.
Traditional Ash Wednesday liturgies focus on the brevity of life and remind worshippers that they came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. For our parents in the faith, Lent was often a morose and somber season in which they gave up something in order to prepare themselves for eternal life. The salvation promised and hoped for required turning our backs on the joys of embodiment and the beauties of the earth. Faithful Christians trained their eyes on heaven, forsaking time for eternity. Yes, life is serious and risky business, and no one gets out alive. But is salvation just an escape from this world of perpetual perishing or is it seeing everlasting beauty in each passing moment? Can we be “citizens of heaven” while we are joyfully living here on earth?
Life is fragile, and we hope for spiritual wholeness — perhaps everlasting life evolving in companionship with God and our loved ones. For years, I struggled with Ash Wednesday Services precisely because of their otherworldliness and asceticism. My self-denial in Lent was typically half-hearted and short-lived.
A number of years ago, I asked a Maryland farmer why he pruned his apple trees. His response was, “to let the light in.” During Lent, we prune and simplify our lives so God’s light can come in. These days, I am reconsidering the meaning of Ash Wednesday. The brevity and uncertainty of life now invites me to praise, wonder, and beauty — and to seize the moment, for this is the day God has made and I will rejoice in it! All that I love and care for is mortal and transitory, but mortality is the inspiration to celebration and love. Plato once described time as the moving image of eternity. We are constantly dying, but we are also constantly living as we reflect God’s vision in the world of the flesh. This day, this moment, is a “thin place,” for God is with us, revealed in flesh, blood, and healing touch.
This Ash Wednesday, I’m letting go of everything that keeps me from rejoicing in the passing beauty of the earth. Each year, as summer begins, I train my eyes for the first fireflies. Their season is brief, and given humanity’s destruction of the natural world, I fear that each summer will be the last. But, when I see the first firefly in late May, my heart leaps with joy and all summer long, I rejoice in the fragile flashing beauty they display.
Yes, we are dust, but we are earthly dust, springing forth from a multi-billion year holy adventure. And dust is good, after all; it is the place of fecundity, of moist dark soil, and perhaps we are “star-dust,” as Rex Hunt suggests, emerging from God’s intergalactic creativity. We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting God’s love over billions of years and in billions of galaxies.
How can we not rejoice in the color purple or pause in wonder at a baby’s birth? How can we be oblivious to the “dearest freshness deep down things?” Like Jacob, Ash Wednesday causes us to pause, notice, wake up, and discover that “God is in this place” and now we know it! With author Patricia Adams Farmer, Ash Wednesday invites us to take a “beauty break,” open to the awe-filled, precarious world in which we live.
So this Ash Wednesday, I plan on considering the lilies and the birds of the air. I will enjoy the beauty of the snow-covered beach on my morning walk. Wednesday, at our congregation’s two Ash Wednesday Services, I will place ashes on congregants, but not the ashes of world-denial or bodily-mortification, but the ashes of transformation, of awakening to beauty and love, of seizing the moment.
In some liturgies, the imposition of ashes is accompanied by the words, “repent and believe the gospel.” And, that I plan to do precisely this as I embrace these words – I plan to repent and believe – to “repent,” turn around, live more in moment, appreciating God’s grandeur, and believing the good news – the embodied, yet ever-lasting, gospel of beauty, wonder, and grace – the good news of walking with beauty all around me.