Ash Wednesday wasn’t part of the faith tradition of my upbringing, and I was a married adult before I was introduced to the sacred ritual of having ashes imposed on my forehead on the Wednesday that marks the beginning of Lent. I had grown to love the symbolism of a liturgical church, and the ashes are rich with meaning. Ashes are equivalent to dust, and the Genesis record says God made human flesh from the dust of the earth and infused the body with the breath of life. When a human corpse decomposes, it returns to dust or ash.
Historically, when a priest or minister uses a smudge of ash to draw a cross on the worshiper’s forehead on Ash Wednesday, he speaks something similar to these words: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Ashes are an image of both death and repentance, and during the forty days of Lent (excluding Sundays, which make the time frame 46 days), Christians worldwide grieve for their sins and the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice for them through his death on the cross. Many people choose to identify in a small way with that sacrifice by giving up something during the period of Lent. In our culture that “sacrifice” usually involves something small like a certain food, alcohol, some form of entertainment, or some other personal enjoyment. Whenever you desire the surrendered item, you’re encouraged to remember Jesus’s time of temptation in the wilderness and his sacrifice on the cross.
From the first time, I was both drawn to and repelled by the message of Ash Wednesday—drawn to the solemn symbolism and tormented by the visible reminder of how terrible I was. As a shame-bowed, sorrowful person who had yet to begin a healing journey, my own heart harshly condemned me, reinforced by a lifetime’s messages about a judgmental God who exacted excellent performance I couldn’t consistently achieve. “Dust to dust”? Not exactly uplifting.
Years of recovery (and many dollars of therapy) greatly reduced the internal voice of shame, but some vestiges remain. My Enneagram One still occasionally (routinely?) demands perfection, and my inner child still shrinks from her neediness or even desires.
Lent, then, and specifically Ash Wednesday have never been my favorites on the church calendar, but my reluctance to be reminded of my shortcomings shifted this week when I read a marvelous reframe. My spiritual director sends a meditation every Monday morning, and this week’s graphic jumped out from my long list of email previews. Positioned in a black text box was a picture of a woman’s forehead marked with ashes, and white bolded text slashed across the dark block, “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?”
The words are from the poem “Blessing the Dust: For Ash Wednesday by Jan Richardson, with whom I was unfamiliar. A portion of the exquisite writing continues, “So let us be marked /not for sorrow / And let us be marked / not for shame. / Let us be marked / not for false humility / or for thinking / we are less than / we are / but for claiming / what God can do / within the dirt, within the stuff / of which the world is made….”
Yes. To. That! Richardson’s words dovetail perfectly with what I’ve learned from years of spiritual direction and more specifically with what God has infused into me in recent weeks. When I wrestle with my imperfection or even my simple human neediness, a loving Mama God immediately responds, “I love you so much! I made you and I know your heart and your love for me and for others and how much you sacrifice. I made you human (‘I love your dust!’) and I don’t expect you to deny your humanity. Come here, child. Let me hold you. I adore you and you’re absolutely OK!” Her voice is persistent and patient and unspeakably kind. Her arms tightly circle me and her breath is warm in my hair. Holy wow!
Maybe this is a stretch, but I wonder if God’s romance with dust is one of the things that draws me to hiking. There’s something about being in unadulterated nature that soothes and comforts me. I love watching my feet traverse through the dust and looking up into the trees overhead. I like the twists and turns of the trail, of being unsure of what exactly is coming next (a deer, hawk, or owl perhaps?), even if the path is familiar. The hilly woods are my sanctuary, and I feel God’s presence there more than anywhere else on earth. I love communing with the Holy One who made the dust, the woods, the deer, and me.
Yes, as I hike or rest I talk with God about my desires and failings, but I also hear Her quick words of affirmation and blessing. Both are equally powerful in the woods. After all, the genesis of ashes is a green breath of life before it’s burned.
Marnie C. Ferree