by Sally Howard
The marking of ashes on the forehead is an ancient sacramental gesture that in one quick moment, parades the whole of life before our eyes.
When we impose the ashes, we quote a verse from Genesis: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:19). In quoting this passage, the church calls to mind the entire narrative of the garden, and specifically, God’s decree concerning the serpent (Gen. 3:14-15) the woman (v.16), and the man (v. 17-19) because the church’s understanding of God has been infused with atonement theology and a toxic dualism that splits our being into good spirit and bad body, we tend to hear this text as one more denunciation of sin, as though Ash Wednesday were a celebration of our sin and unworthiness.
In fact, the whole of Lent has been popularly defined as a season of guilt and penance, a period for confronting and acknowledging (and even wallowing in) our sinfulness. The sacramental history of the church has linked the journey of Jesus to the cross by stress on self-sacrifice, self-denial, self-abasement, and self-rejection. The “dust formula” easily serves such an agenda.
In addition, the story of Genesis 2-3 is popularly and uncritically heard as an account of “original sin” and “The Fall.” It has been exceedingly difficult to liberate our Christian narrative from the imposed themes of “original sin” and “The Fall,” even though few critical interpreters read the text in such a way. This perspective of human degradation and God’s punitive nature has been the source of untold suffering and violence. People who believe they are bad at the core and unworthy of love can do ungodly things to themselves as well as to other people.
Although I did not grow up as an Episcopalian (therefore Ash Wednesdays had no ashes) my thoroughly Protestant church was not shy about turning on the floodlights exposing our sinful human natures and need to repent!
These are the words of Lent, and I, for one, had a hard time believing they were popular even with the Puritans.
I dreaded Lent and the long lead up to Good Friday, when the worst of the Guilt was to be dispensed for feeling responsible for the death of Jesus. Scouring one’s mind for any possible offense was essential, particularly before taking communion. The one exception to this denunciation of the flesh was the communion wafers made by the women of our church. They were buttery-sweet shortbread squares – perhaps an under the radar protest against Lenten guilt. Most of us limped into Easter hoping that we had felt repentant enough to make it past the wrath of a God. Whew!
I am very grateful to have a new story about God, given to me by this community and the emphatic waters of my psychoanalytic world. In this story, we are not born in sin, but rather of a love affair! Born of the relational love and energy of God both diverse and one, bursting forth to create all that exists. In this story we are not only dust, but a Parish camp proclaimed last weekend, we are stardust.
We come from the very heart of God who is eternally and dynamically in Love with God’s material world and all God’s creatures. The whole universe is God’s, all of it infused with divine breath, the roach of God, crammed with restless creative energy and unending vitality. It’s a universe of purpose and meaning, it’s all connected, and it’s headed somewhere good.
This good news means that the wisdom of God in us is deeper than ignorance of what we have done.
That there is strength within us for holy transformation that is deeper than any fragmentation we experience or create.
At our core are the love longings of God to come back into harmony and true relationship with the heart of all things.
The “dust formula” is not a statement about curse, judgment, or indictment. It is a declaration that where we stand with all our mistakes and imperfection is holy ground. Being a good person naturally flows, not from trying to get on God’s good side but from the realization that God has been on your side the whole time.
The imposition of ashes is an invitation to recognize and remember our true identity as creatures of God, dependent, vulnerable, and precarious, relying in each moment on the gracious gift to roach that makes our life possible. It is meant to orient us to our true vocation as caretakers of this glorious earth and all earth’s creatures. It’s meant to remind us that the true riches in life are generated and multiplied by compassion, hospitality, justice and peace.