Two of my friends from seminary got married, and they now serve together at a couple of Episcopal churches down in McComb and Magnolia, MS. They have a little girl who’s almost five, and like most preacher’s kids, including my own, she spends a lot of time at church. A lot. These kids go to church armed with notebooks for drawing and books to read and the occasional Hotwheels car or Webkinz cat – anything to help pass the hours they spend sitting in church listening to their parents preach.
So my friends’ daughter was two years old and was at church…again…for Ash Wednesday. She went up with everyone else to receive her ashes – and what a sobering thing it is to smudge ashes across a child’s forehead and tell her, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return – she went up with everyone else to receive her ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And in that particularly quiet and prayerful and somber moment, the whole church heard her exclaim, “Hooray! I love my ashes!”
How unlike most people who, once the ashen cross is drawn upon their foreheads, whisper a humble “amen” and bear on their faces a most sober expression, full of feeling sorry for whatever things they have done or left undone that might be called sins. It’s true, of course, that we all do things intentionally and unintentionally that hurt ourselves or others, and it is appropriate to reflect on those things from time to time and choose, if we are able, to make amends, to make things right. Every faith tradition has a season or an annual observance during which believers reflect on their sins and through prayer and action return to a right relationship with God and with others.
But there are also words like forgiveness and reconciliation and mercy and grace. In the wilderness of Lent we are invited to leave behind all those things that have gotten between us and God. Create in me a clean heart, O God, we will soon read together from Psalm 51. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me.
A clean heart. A right Spirit. How do we do that? We could start by rubbing these ashes off, right? If we’re trying make clean all those things that get between us and God, why would we smear our foreheads with soot? God’s heart and Spirit are clean, aren’t they? I mean, you never hear anyone saying to God, “Um, you’ve got a little something there, on your forehead, just there, looks like dirt…”
But then again... From the very beginning, when in the biblical story of creation God kneels down in the rich, dark soil and lovingly forms and shapes by hand a human figure and breathes the breath of life into it and calls it adamah, which is Hebrew for “dust”…adamah, Adam… From the very beginning God, the maker of heaven and earth, has had dirt and dust and ashes and soot not only on the forehead but under the nails and between the toes. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and into the Christian testament, the story of God and adamah, God and dust, God and us, has been a story of being in relationship – not the long distance kind, but the sandbox kind, where we’re down in the dirt together forming and shaping our lives. Do you love your ashes yet?
Ash Wednesday is about remembering who we are – we are people made of dust and the breath of God, we are people made in the image of God, whose greatest love is getting down in the dirt and making something wonderful out of it. That’s why the prophet Isaiah tells us that making things right between us and God is not as much about how we pray as it is about how we live in this wonderful, dusty old world. Remove the chains of oppression, God says through Isaiah tonight. Work for justice and freedom. Share your food with the hungry. Open your homes to the poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your sisters and brothers, which is to say, all people.
As we journey through the season of Lent – as we journey through all the seasons of our lives – we are called not to wipe the dust off but rather to follow God’s example, to let mercy make a mess of things in a world that prefers those who are spotless. In everything we do, Paul writes, in everything we do we are to be working for God, getting dirt under our nails as we build real relationships with others in the sandbox and in doing so build a real relationship with God.