Ash Wednesday is a day of contrasts – mortality and grace, confession and transformation, death and eternal life, sacrifice and beauty. Not an abstract religious holy day, Ash Wednesday reflects the concrete realities of our personal, political, and relational lives. Ash Wednesday awakens us to our common humanity as dusty and fallible creatures, in need of grace, repentance, and transformation.
Life is beautiful, but often too short. This should be apparent to any member of the Medicare generation as well as to those watching the news of unnecessary killing this week in Ukraine. In the midst of life, a life of parenting, work, recreation, and planning for the future, a nation is surrounded by death, and political leaders choose death over life, and ugliness over beauty. All in the space of a week!
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. This is personal for all of us. We are mortal and our mortality can open us to the wonder of life or to deadly self-interest and nationalism.
Traditional Ash Wednesday liturgies focus on the brevity of life and remind worshippers that they came from dust and will soon enough will return to the earth, dust once more. For our parents in the faith, Lent was a morose and somber season in which they gave up something 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 and embodiment for legalism and asceticism. 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?
Can we give up certain things to promote the greater good of justice, environmental healing, and the survival of democratic institutions at home and abroad? Can a nation that split over COVID, vaccinations, and mask-wearing unite to sacrifice to support Ukraine or our children’s future?
Life is fragile, and we hope for spiritual wholeness, and 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 going the way of New Year’s resolutions. Yet there is a deeper meaning to Ash Wednesday than superficial sacrifice and other worldly self-denial.
Once I asked a Maryland farmer why he pruned his apple trees. His response was, “to let the light in.” During Lent, and on Ash Wednesday, we prune and simplify our lives so God’s light can come in awakening us to God’s energy of love enveloping us and the whole earth. Connected as branches on a divine vine, we prune the cumber so that God’s energy can flow unimpeded into our lives, bringing forth abundant fruit in my personal, relational, and political life.
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. Each day I affirm “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 and the willingness to live simply so others can simply live.
This Ash Wednesday, my aim is to let 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. Rejoicing leads to gratitude, and gratitude leads to sacrifice and activism.
This Ash Wednesday I contemplate what it means to sacrifice to ensure beauty for the planet, justice in my nation and across the global, and the wellbeing of future generations. I must prune away much, and declutter my mind and possessions to embrace the reality that we are all joined as fellow mortal adventures in a fragile and precarious time.
Yes, we are dust, but we are earthly dust, springing forth from a multi-billion-year holy adventure. Those being killed and killing in Ukraine are dust; Putin is dust along with those in the USA who are complicit in his violence; all are dust. Our recognition of mortality, our dustiness, can awaken us to something better than military conquest, political demagoguery, and alienation from our neighbors. For dust is good, after all; it is the place of fecundity, of moist dark soil, and perhaps we are also “star-dust,” 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. We can change and choose life for the people of Ukraine, the vulnerable in our land and our democratic ideals, and for future generations.
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” as Gerard Manley Hopkins notes? Like Jacob, Ash Wednesday causes us to pause, notice, wake up, and discover that “God is in this place” and now we know it! This place is our home, Ukraine, our bodies, the urge for transformation.
So, this Ash Wednesday, I plan to give thanks as I consider the lilies and the birds the air. I will enjoy the beauty of the woods on my morning walk. I will spend time with my grandsons and love my wife Kate deeply. I will commit myself to sacrifice – and encourage others to sacrifice – for the common good of the planet and its broken peoples.
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. The good news of healing and justice seeking! For this is the day – this day of anxiety, pain, and wonder – that God has made, and I will rejoice and be glad in it!
Bruce Epperly is a professor, pastor, spiritual guide, and author of over sixty books, including Spiritual Decluttering: Forty Days to Personal Transformation and Planetary Healing; Mystcs in Action: Twelve Saints for Today; Walking with Francis of Assisi: From Privilege to Activism; and Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision of Contemplative Activism.