Embracing the Tragic Beauty of Ash Wednesday”
Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to reflect on the tragic beauty of life. The philosopher Afred North Whitehead asserts that: “At the heart of the nature of things, there are always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy. The Adventure of the Universe starts with the dream and reaps tragic Beauty. This is the secret of the union of Zest with Peace: —That the suffering attains its end in a Harmony of Harmonies. The immediate experience of this Final Fact, with its union of Youth and Tragedy, is the sense of Peace. In this way the World receives its persuasion towards such perfections as are possible for its diverse individual occasions.” Life is tragic, dreams are dashed by concrete reality, and yet beauty endures, often in the midst of tragedy. We can mourn loss, repent evil doing, and yet give thanks for the beauty that surrounds us.
Life is beautiful, but often too short. In my early seventies, I am well aware of mortality: although I am in good health and of sound mind and am flourishing as a writer and teacher, I sometimes wonder when I will write my “last” book, teach my “last class,” or take my “last” overseas or cross-country trip. A have a good model in my mentor John Cobb, who is going strong at 99. But, still I wonder how long my “third act” will be filled with joy and meaning.
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. Cancer has taken several of my dearest friends over the past several years. Funerals and memorial services characterized my work as a pastor. Of course, our days are filled with images of war in Ukraine, Gaza, and Israel, and replays of the domestic terrorism of January 6. 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 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, 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.
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! (Psalm 118:24) All that I love and care for is mortal and transitory, but mortality is the inspiration to celebration and love. The brevity of love invites us to live fully and boldly. To plan for the future and live in the moment. 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. The light shines in the gloom. Life persists in times of chaos.
Yes, we are dust, but we are earthly dust, springing forth from a multi-billion year holy adventure. But, dust is good, after all; it is the place of fecundity, of moist dark soil, and perhaps we are “stardust,” 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?” 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! 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 my morning walk. I will spend time with my grandsons and their parents, reach out intentionally to friends far and near, delight in my dog racing across the commons in our town house community, and love my wife Kate deeply.
I will celebrate ashes this year, but they will not be 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 precisely do this – to repent and believe – to turn around, live in moment, appreciate God’s grandeur, and believe the good news – the embodied, yet ever-lasting, gospel of beauty, wonder, and grace – the good news of walking with beauty all around me and doing something beautiful for God not just for forty days but for all the days of my life.
Rev. Bruce Epperly Ph.D. has served as a professor, seminary administrator, university chaplain, and congregational pastor at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Lancaster Theological Seminary, and South Congregational Church United Church of Christ on Cape Cod. “Retired,” he continues to teach in the Doctoral of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary, give seminars, write, and rejoice in grandparenting and marriage with Rev. Dr. Kate Epperly. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he is the author of over eighty books, “The Elephant is Running: Process and Open and Relational Theology and Religious Pluralism,” “Jesus: Mystic, Healer, and Prophet,” “Walking with Francis of Assisi: From Privilege to Activism,” “Simplicity, Spirituality, and Service: The Eternal Wisdom of Francis, Clare, and Bonaventure,” and “Taking a Walk with Whitehead: Meditations with Process-Relational Theology.” His books on faith and politics include, “Talking Politics with Jesus: A Process Perspective on the Sermon on the Mount,” “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective,” and “Process Theology and Politics. His most recent texts are a trilogy: “Process Theology and Healing,” “Process Theology and Mysticism,” and “Process Theology and Prophetic Faith.” He may be reached at email@example.com.