March 1, 2017
In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott describes the “contradictory nature of ashes”: “They are both so heavy and so light,” she says. “They’re impossible to let go of entirely. They stick to things, to your fingers…They cling, they haunt. They get in your hair, in your eyes, in your clothes”.1
And tonight, they will get onto our faces, onto our foreheads. Indeed they will stick to our fingers, and they will fall onto our eyelashes, our noses, and our clothes.
I am one who would prefer to keep them tidy. But they won’t be. I am one who will fear—somewhere deep inside, often beneath my awareness—that if the ashes tumble awry or if the cross on my forehead or your forehead isn’t perfect, it’s because I have done something terribly wrong and am unlovable.
But if Ash Wednesday is about anything, it is about truth—the truth of you and the truth of me that we will see on our faces. And the truth is that God has made us out of love and dust, and through this love and dust, is creating us new, tonight.
Out of boundless and overflowing love, God took dust—dust, of all things!—and breathed life into it and made a human.2 God breathed upon the waters and brought forth everything else that is beautiful and good.3 God breathed into those hopeless dry bones and made them dance.4
And so when we pray tonight, Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me!5 we know that God will hear our prayers. God loves us madly and fully. As Saint Augustine has so famously said, “You have created us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”6
Restless and messy, like ashes. Humble and fleeting and fragile and gritty, like ashes. Full of memories and stories and dreams, like ashes. These ashes, which are made from the prayer flags that filled this space so vividly on All Saints’ Day, remind us that, yes, we are dust and to dust we shall return, we and all of our beloved ones, and—and yet—this is not the end of the story.
This is not the end of our story, for with new and contrite hearts, our story may begin again tonight. Or as the band Mumford & Sons puts it, It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart, but the welcome I receive with every start.7 God welcomes you. God loves you, completely. And God wants you to come home.
1 p. 95
2 Genesis 2:7
3 Genesis 1
4 Ezekiel 37:1-14
5 Psalm 51:10-11
6 Confessions, Book 1:1
7 “Roll away your stone”, Sigh No More