“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Gen. 3:19
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” John 12:24-25
The first line of my spiritual autobiography (were I to write such a thing) would read something like this: “My spirit was birthed in the dust of death and ashes.” It’s a good line, I think. A striking image, ironic enough to pique the reader’s interest. And for what it’s worth, it’s mostly true. On Ash Wednesday a few years ago, in the chapel of my graduate school where I was studying to become a minister, someone dipped their thumb into a canister of palm ash and drew a cross on my forehead. They intoned, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This was new for me. The Churches of Christ that had been my homes had never observed Ash Wednesday. Few do today, and even fewer impose ashes upon the foreheads of their congregants. Ash Wednesday marks the fasting season known in worldwide Christianity as Lent. Just as Christ was in the wilderness forty days, many Christians observe a season of fasting before Easter. And Lent begins with a ceremonial reminder that mortal death is our inheritance for sin. That the wages of sin is death. That we have transgressed, and our sin is ever before us. That we are dust, and to dust we return. Ash Wednesday invites us to sit in our sackcloth and ashes, to consider the word repent.
And I felt it. The minister smeared the ashes on my forehead and I sat down. And somehow, all that death and sorrow seemed stuck on face, like a tattoo announcing that I was a phony. My spiritual life was as dead and burnt up as the last year’s palm leaves. And there I was, in seminary, learning about from God from people who seemed to know God. Before the ceremony i had wondered if I would feel foolish for standing in line and having ashes smeared on me. After, though, I didn’t feel foolish. I felt guilt.
Guilt, not shame. Not that sick feeling of unworthiness and unloveliness that I’d felt so often in my life. It wasn’t that corrosive sickness that sits in the gut. It was more like a warm heaviness in my chest, like the burdens I’d been carrying were truly burdens, too heavy to continue hauling around. But I wasn’t just feeling burdened. I could also feel a gentle sort of kindness. And I know that what I felt was the voice of Jesus whispering, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
That day a crack began to form in the shell my ego had built around my soul. Ash Wednesday forced me to confront my emptiness, my powerlessness, my death. Such is God’s love, that the weight we attempt to bear alone eventually falls, and our weakness, our mortality, our powerlessness that we try so hard to deny is thrust upon us, and we are crushed. Somehow, I’d been crushed by a bit of ash. I sat there thinking about how I’d play-acted this relationship with God for far too long, and how I wanted so desperately to know what grace felt like. I thought about the cost I would have to pay for it, about confessing sins and being known. I thought about who I could ask for help and council. And I thought about the word repent and how it no longer spoke of judgment and admonition but was rather the sweetest of all invitations.