A single Facebook status from a friend encapsulated so well why I love today. “Ash Wednesday is great,” she said, “because we look at each other and admit, ‘Yeah, we’re f*cked.’”
I crave Ash Wednesday. I crave it all year, it seems, but especially so when winter is taking final, ferocious swipes at the mid-atlantic as the world wheels away from it and into spring. And I sat at my desk most of the day both begrudging the fact that I’d missed helping out with Ashes-to-Go given a wicked head cold, while waiting for the day to end so I could go get that precious smudge of ash, to pray all those delicious psalms of penitence and confession, and to eat the family dinner again.
I think I needed it more than normal this year, though. Having endured so much in the past few months, in the midst of wrestling with questions of discernment and career and housing—now, today, right this second, rattled by these questions, is why I need to be reminded that I’m dust. And you with me. We’re but dust.
Dust and water, really—the smudged thumbprints on our foreheads are as much remembrances of our baptisms as they are our mortality. Either way, death is inescapable. But if death is inescapable, new life is even less so, because we are dust and living water.
During mass tonight I put the ashes on the rector’s forehead: “Hey, you’re gonna die.” And she turned right back around and did the same to me. Just a couple of sinners, we.
It’s kind of gauche to talk about sin in progressive circles; surely we’ve evolved beyond that. Well, I should hope that we’ve moved beyond the rhetoric of “you’re a sinner and sin is bad and you should feel bad” that roots sin in basic misbehavior, as if the Cross and Resurrection were some kind of cosmic behavioral therapy. Stop being bad, pay the toll, get into heaven, the usual.
But the sweet-sounding liberal approaches to sin—that we fear that “we are powerful beyond measure,” or that we’re simply not holding ourselves and each other in high-enough esteem–ring hollow as well. ISIS is not crucifying children because they fear their own power and aren’t letting their light shine. I’m not harboring grudges and ill-will towards others because of a failure of self-esteem.
When we come to the Ash Wednesday liturgy, there is absolutely no way around it. Sin is real. Sin is not mere misbehavior, or holding ourselves in low esteem—sin is a failure to love in the right direction, mixed with the shimmering darknesses that lie in human hearts, without any means of fixing it on our own.
The great comfort of Ash Wednesday and the whole Christian tradition of penance, ultimately, is that God is at work in us turning our turned-in love back out towards God and towards our neighbor, and rooting out those darknesses. Our slap-bracelet love is given to whip back in on itself at any second, and so left to ourselves we are constantly fighting the elasticity of our hearts. Turning our hearts back out, something that is impossible for us to do, is arrestingly possible for She who squeezed together a handful of fertile black dust and water and gave us a heart of flesh.
I need freedom to admit my own failure to love rightly, to admit my own humanness, to ask for help. And I need the promise of a God who is dealing with it by taking those failures onto Godself and inverting them once and for all in resurrection.
Nadia Bolz-Weber rightly says, “To me, there is actually great hope in admitting my mortality and brokenness because then I finally lay aside my sin management program and allow God to be God for me. Which is all any of us really need when it comes down to it.”
To be grounded in our ground-ness once again and let God be God, that’s what I needed today. Even as I’m struggling to figure out where “home” is for me among the Church, even as I’m working to live into my calling to ministry, the very basis of all of that is that I am ‘adam, a God-made earthling, a beloved sinner, who has a head cold and eats too much fried food and holds grudges and is in desperate need of bread and wine and welcome and mercy. Who forgets too often and needs to remember.