You know, it’s funny. I do this for a living, and it still surprises me. It happened this afternoon in Midtown. People brushing past on the sidewalks, standing in line beside you at the counter, waiting for coffee.
I feel startled when I see their smudgy foreheads. Have you had the same compulsion I have? To lean over and whisper . . . “you know, you’ve got a smudge or something right there, on your forehead . . .” And, yet, here we are, gathered in the quiet, waiting for our smudges to mark our foreheads, too, so we’ll be one of them, too . . . going through the rest of this day, no longer pristinely groomed and, as far as anybody else knows, pretty perfect . . . but instead, marked by dust.
On any other day, we could keep up the façade. We’d just melt into the crowd, one of the many in a swirling mass of humanity, all of us trying desperately to ignore our humanness, or overlook it like it was something bad, or try with our best efforts to appear together, perfect, happy, at peace.
But not today. Today is different. Today we come for the ashes, asking to be marked by the dust, acknowledging that sometimes things break, they crack and fissure, and when they do, there’s bound to be a cloud of dust, a little pile of rubble, some grit that punctuates our carefully preserved, pristine humanness.
Today we remember that we are dust.
Why? (I get asked that a lot.)
There’s already enough pain, despair, disappointment, failure in this world. We can’t avoid it even if we try. What’s the help in going over and over it again? Why add to the messages we already hear loud, loud and clear every single day: missed the mark . . . not good enough . . . failed again . . . can’t seem to get it right no matter how hard she tries . . . so disappointing…not what I had hoped for.
Wouldn’t it be better to skip the dust altogether . . . to focus instead on all the perfection we aspire to? Maybe if we try, instead we can spend our time on positive thinking . . . remembering everything we hope to accomplish, how, if we keep trying hard enough we can rise above all the dustiness of being human and shine, shine with all the good potential we’re sure is in there somewhere?
Or, if we can’t do that, then at least stuff all the pain down and smile for the camera?
Sara Miles writes: “It’s rare in our culture to admit, in public, that you’re not in control–that you, basically, are not God. And given the din of advertising and political polemic and hype and doublespeak surrounding us, it’s rare to escape the fantasy that money or science, fame or violence or shiny objects will somehow save us from death.”
So why do we do it? Why would we gather in this place to remind each other that we’re broken, hurting, dying?
Because it’s true.
And we all desperately need someplace to tell the truth about our lives.
A few years ago on Ash Wednesday I was leading a service of the imposition of ashes. It was a service very similar to this one, somber, quiet, thoughtful. Together we nervously thought about our own dustiness, the places where our humanity forces its way in and things crack open and the dust gets, well, everywhere. Then, I invited the congregation to come up front to receive the ashes, as I will invite you very shortly.
In the line that year was a friend of mine, another minister, who was on maternity leave and not presiding over a service that day. She showed up to sit in the pew, to receive the ashes rather than to impose them.
I could see her out there, drinking in the words of the scripture, closing her eyes to really feel the music, letting the peace and safety of worship wash over her. As it came time for the imposition of the ashes, I could see her get ready to come up to the altar. She hesitated for a minute and then gathered up Graham, her little three week old son, and brought him with her up to the altar.
When she reached me she looked up with a question in her eyes. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave him in the pew, but he’s so little—do you think he should get ashes too?”
I didn’t know either, to tell you the truth. It seemed somehow a wrong to smear smudgy ashes on this little, perfect baby.
I stared down at Graham’s smooth baby forehead, unmarked by the worries of the world, so surely innocent and bearing of none of the heavy weight you and I drag behind us as we stumble to this altar every year.
I wasn’t sure, but I did it anyway. I smudged the ashes on my finger and touched them to that smooth baby skin; I whispered words he surely couldn’t understand: “remember, Grammy, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return . . . but the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.”
When I saw his little smudgy baby forehead through my tears, I finally remembered what the dust means—not that we are marked as sin-filled and beyond redemption, dirty, unacceptable failures, because I could gaze at little Graham and know for sure his dustiness didn’t mean that.
No, the dust marked him, and marks us, as human beings who, in our human living, break and hurt and crumble a little from time to time. And, we tend to get a little dusty. And that’s just the truth about being human.
So when we come to the front to take the ashes no matter who we are, not matter how old, we’re really saying to the world outside and to each other . . . pardon our dust. We acknowledge our humanness. Let us be for just a little while, who we really, really are.
But tonight we are also marked with an awareness of the divine miracle: even in our human dust, you and I shine with every bit of hope and promise and potential that God had in mind when God first scooped up the dust of the earth and, spinning his holy imagination, took a little spark of God-ness and fashioned it into you and me and all of us.
So when we take the ashes, we’re telling the truth: we are dust, and to dust we shall return. And we also claim our designation, now more than ever, as people marked by the grace and love of God—not in spite of our dustiness . . . but right along with it and every other dusty and shiny and hurt-filled and wonderful thing about who we are.
Today the smudges foreheads proclaim to the world, “Pardon our dust, would you? God does . . .”.