“remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” (genesis 3:19)
these words during the distribution of ashes on ash wednesday have always been powerful. as a kid, we used to go to the evening mass. immediately when i returned home, i had to look in the mirror to see what the ashes looked like. were they smudged on? did the mark look like a cross? today is ash wednesday 2021, as per covid changes, ashes will be sprinkled on our heads instead.
the context of the above quote is the adam and eve creation account in genesis 3: being dust and returning to dust is humanity’s destiny as part of creation. our original sin was to choose to go beyond human limits and essentially become God or become our own god. we humans get in trouble when we forget who we are.
in later years, there was an alternative blessing during the distribution of ashes: “turn away from sin, be faithful to the gospel.” the ashes are a reminder of our mortality: that life is fleeting and now is the time to change.
so it is wonderful liturgical irony that we hear jesus say in the gospel at ash wednesday, “take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father” (mt. 6:1). after we hear these words, our foreheads are smudged with dirt for all to see! but the other parts of that gospel (mt 6: 2-8) outline the three traditional actions for the season of lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. these are ways to change our hearts from sin; these are ways to be faithful to the gospel. these are the ways to remember that we are mere specks of dust in the universal scheme of life. we are to choose these actions with humble hearts not to show people how spiritual we are.
giving up things for lent is still common. these are acts of self denial– the logical extension of fasting. when we were kids, we would give up candy. the adult version is giving up drinking booze or desserts. these are okay and can be helpful for strengthening one’s will, but to really go deeper into turning away sin and rediscovering the gospel, the three traditional ways can be updated for our 2021 covid restrictive world.
are there personal resolutions regarding renewing time in prayer that i can choose?
besides fasting with food, can i fast from other things that can consume me (e.g. technology/cell phone included) in order to be more present to the moment and the people right in front of me?
instead of just sharing the financial gifts that God has blessed me with, can i volunteer my time or God given skills in a new and different way this lent? and then continue to share myself with others even after lent?
covid-19 has taught us this year that life is fleeting. many people have struggled mightily to just get by. families have lost loved ones to the virus. perhaps this year’s lenten time is a time to further integrate these spiritual lessons into our lives. maybe our priorities have shifted and these covid restrictions have shown us what is really important and what we really value.
my hope is that the Spirit lead and guide us through a new desert of forty days. i pray that the crosses that we have been carrying and all the times we have fallen fortify who we are as brothers and sisters in Christ’s cross and suffering. i pray that as we embrace our dustiness and various imperfections, we can know the good news that we are loved beyond our wildest imaginations by our kind and gracious God.
living lent well will reveal the glorious power of resurrection hope at easter.
“happy” ash wednesday!