Of course, it can’t simply be Ash Wednesday.
We wear the ashes to remind ourselves of what we are. We are dust. Not glitter. Dust and ash. Sin and rebellion and all manner of other mean ugly things that we pretend aren’t there or mitigate by comparing ourselves to worse people. We embody death. We wear the ashes to remind ourselves of this. All of our plans and goals, all of our hopes and dreams about what cars to drive or what school district to live in, what position we aspire to in the company or what we hope our children will choose as their careers – all of these things are dust and ashes. There is no hope in any of it. Ashes are bereft of hope. They are the leftovers, the detritus of everything else.
Stopping by a used bookstore last week while waiting for a meeting to begin, I purchased a big book of newspaper front pages. My eldest son has an interest in history and current events and I thought he’d get a kick out of looking at the daily news over a span of time. Browsing through it, I was struck by the importance attributed to events that today are almost meaningless beyond a historical perspective. All the successes and tragedies are smoothed over by the steady passage of time, day by day, until the divas and demons of the day are forgotten. None of this matters.
We can stare at that reality only so long before we move one of two directions. One is the direction of hopelessness and despair, the path of existential crisis that curtails or destroys our ability and desire to function. I believe that we are dealing with this in our culture today. The other direction is to find a source of hope, or to cling more tightly to the hope we already have.
That is what the ashes also do. They remind us of death, but within the context of Christian worship they also remind us of our hope. Life beyond the ashes. Through faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God who died and rose from the dead on our behalf, we embody not only death, but new life as well. Life free from the sin and self-centeredness that defines our sinful reality and all-too-often eclipses the new life within us. Those in Christ can look into the meaninglessness of all our temporal aspirations because of the hope – grounded in history and geography – that there is something greater waiting beyond as well as within.
There will be no glitter in our ashes this evening. Just as I wouldn’t mix ashes with whiskey for alcoholics, or cut the ashes with cocaine for drug addicts. Just as I wouldn’t mix the ashes with chocolate for someone with an eating disorder, or shredded money for someone who is greedy or miserly. Our cultural attitudes about what constitutes a problem or a condition will fluctuate. But the Biblical standards regarding sin never will. They can be ignored or followed, but they aren’t subject to change based on popular opinion or who yells the loudest. Our sin – whether we approve of it or recognize it – is what brings us to ashes. And it is only the forgiveness of Jesus Christ who can bring us – recreated and without sin – out of those ashes and into new life.
The ashes remind us that all sin leads us to the grave. Not simply what we do or don’t do, but what we think or don’t think, what we feel or don’t feel. Sin is not an action, it is who we are. Sin-full. The size of the sin doesn’t matter. Gossip or genocide. Murder or shoplifting. And it doesn’t matter whether we think of our sin as sin, or whether we wish we were free of it or not. Sin simply is. I don’t place the ashes on one person’s head to proclaim them a greater sinner than the next person in line. And the fact that there are glitter in one person’s ashes doesn’t mean they are any less of a sinner or more of a sinner than the next person in line. The ashes don’t celebrate anything. They are the solidarity of the dead.
My hope as I place the ashes on the heads of my people tonight and my own head is only and always that all of that sin is forgiven in Christ, and that we one day will be free of all that sin forever, even the things we refuse or are unable to see as sinful today. I suspect there might be glitter involved at that point, despite the fact I really don’t care for glitter regardless of the reason. Glitter would be appropriate then, though, as perhaps it might be appropriate on Easter. Glitter to celebrate not who we are and what we do, but who God is and what God has done for us in raising Jesus from the dead. He gives us a reason to hope in the face of the futility of our lives, a hope offered to everyone whether they have glitter in their ashes or no ashes at all.
Postscript: I nearly deleted this after I posted it. Perhaps I still should. I realized how bleak it sounds, and that is hardly in keeping with the Christian faith.
Like many people (I presume) I had anticipations of greatness. Hopes for the future and Big Achievements and Accomplishments. I dreamed of being a famous writer. But then the Internet and self-publishing came along and people don’t read so much anymore and there just isn’t the same appeal as there was when books were a bit harder to come by. I began teaching with hopes of being a wise and beloved professor, but realized after the fact that teachers come and go, and most administrations don’t appreciate them the way they should when they’re on payroll, let alone after they leave. And while I hope I had influence on a few students, that’s an elusive and unquantifiable thing. I came to Seminary with ideas about the Church and the future. But I learned a lot along the way, which is the whole point I suppose, not just about theology but about myself. Maybe I’m not the person who inspires and points the way to the future. Maybe I’m not St. Paul or St. Peter or St. Augustine or St. Aquinas.
As 50 looms closer and closer I presume I’m dealing with the existential angst of mid-life, recognizing that the odds of being Important and Influential on any sort of grand scale are dwindling literally by the day. That I’m not the extraordinary person I hoped to become when I was younger. Not on the larger scale, where strangers talk about you and marvel. This is the reality for 99% of us. Very few are lauded in history books and monuments, and for those that are, it probably isn’t much the source of pride because they’re dead. I won’t be heralded through the ages as a great visionary or an erudite apologist. If I’m lucky, I can speak God’s Word to people in a way that anchors them more firmly to the foundation of Christ. That’s not exactly lousy in terms of consolation prizes. Neither is being a spouse, or a parent, or a neighbor, or any of the other things you and I do every day.
What I do matters. What you do matters. Maybe not on the national or global scale. Not in ways we’re going to appreciate and feel good about and enjoy the benefits of here and now. What we do matters a great deal to the people who know us. To our families and friends. It matters that we do a good job at our work because that’s how we love our neighbor. It matters because those people will go on to shape and impact others and future generations, so that a life spent invested in family and honest work and an admirable if not extraordinary example of dignity and honor and love of God matters a great deal, far more than we can recognize in our own lifetime. I pray it’s one of those happy surprises of eternity, that we’ll be able to trace out the impacts we had on others. I pray that the good impacts outweigh the bad.
Life isn’t without meaning, and I apologize for my midlife grumpy-ness.