Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 | Psalm 51:1-17 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
This night is kind of a lot.
It’s a time to return to God with all our hearts, says the prophet Joel.
It is a time to lament together, which really means telling the truth about ourselves and our lives.
It’s a day that can feel heavy with reality, if we’ve learned to be ashamed of the heavy stuff about ourselves. Or maybe it can feel light, because for once we’re telling the truth in front of each other—and we’re all still here in relationship together.
Later on we’ll do some truth telling about our brokenness. I’ll invite you to the season of Lent, which begins tonight. And then we’ll smudge ashes on our foreheads.
Ashes are such a visceral part of this holy day. There is no other time of year when I smear oily sludge on my forehead. And there is really no other time of year that the church sets aside especially to be brutally honest about death.
Ashes remind us of death in a kind of special way. Ashes are different from tombstones, for instance. Actually, I think that a tombstone is quite the opposite of ashes.
A tombstone makes something that will last longer than I can, make a spot on this earth that’s just for me, even after I’m gone. People can go to remember me and there will be a physical something there, to mark that I lived and died, and had a life story.
An ashy forehead says the opposite. Ashes say I am dust, and dust isn’t like a tombstone. Dust doesn’t last. It loses its shape and gets blown away by the wind like THAT. Scattered and lost and forgotten.
Because think about ashes…
Let’s zoom out and take a look at the life cycle of these ashes. Right now they look like, well, ashes. But the atoms that make up these ashes used to be palm leaves. And before that, they were seeds and dirt. And before that, who knows? Atoms are cycled and recycled since the beginning of the universe, at least 14 billion years ago. The atoms in this ash probably used to be stars. Then at some point about 4.5 billion years ago, they formed the planet we call Earth.
The Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years. And that’s very hard to imagine. So let’s think of the history of the earth like a year: from the very beginning until now. The Earth was born on January 1st. Out of the earth’s atoms, life emerges around February 25th. March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October…
Around November 15 fungi appear. Animals start happening around December, and the dinosaurs go extinct on December 25. On December 31st around 11:30 a.m., the earliest hominids begin to walk on two legs. On December 31st at 11:36 PM there are humans for the first time. At 11:59 p.m. those humans begin to plant seeds and harvest them, the first agriculture. And on December 31st at 11:59 and 46 seconds, Jesus lives and dies.
And we were born like *just* now.
And this dust right here is even newer; it was made like JUST now from the burning.
But in another way this dust has been around forever.
And tonight we remember that we are dust.
We are dust in the sense that we, too are in some sense ancient, made up of atoms that have been around since the beginning of the universe, that eventually made their way into plants that got eaten by animals that got metabolized into molecules like skin and blood and bone.
And also we are dust in the sense that dust doesn’t last. Not like a tombstone—although even tombstones weather and split and decay. But we are dust. One hundred percent of us will die.
The people that know us and love us will remember us because they loved us, and death will hurt because death breaks our relationships and we are made for relationships. And they’ll remember us fiercely and our life will have mattered.
But they will also die, and so will everyone who knew them. And most likely no one will remember us within a few generations.
^^That might sound bleak, but it’s just honest.
If it feels kind of scary to you, that’s probably because you learned a different story about your life and what it means.
If you’re like me, you might have learned to see yourself as bigger, more impactful than that. You might have learned that in life you’re supposed to be important, or at least productive. Don’t waste your life, make something out of it! And if you can’t do that on your own, there’s an app to help you with that for only $9.99/month and have you thought about wearing more makeup because that might help? And are you really driving as hard as you can to have an impact? Because that is what makes your life good and worthwhile.
Ash Wednesday is here to say that that story you might have learned is not what you are. You are not really productive in the truest sense, because there is NOTHING you can produce that will last on earth, “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt 6:19). You are not so important or impactful. And because of the way that old story goes, you might be feeling kind of bad about that right now, because you might think that means that you are not good, or that your life isn’t worthwhile, but Ash Wednesday is actually saying the exact opposite.
Ash Wednesday is here to tell a different story about you—
A story where you are good and worthwhile, but not for any of the reasons you thought.
Ash Wednesday’s story is much older; it goes back to the very first humans. You are dust.
And the most important thing about the dust isn’t what the dust can do on it’s own… Because it can’t do anything on its own. What’s important about dust is that once upon a time God scooped up some dust, with tenderness and creativity, and breathed life into dust so that it could move and live and love.
It didn’t matter to God that the dust might blow away, or that it wasn’t forever, or that no one would remember. And the very first thing that God said about you, creature of dust, is that you. are. good.
So good that it really doesn’t matter what you do, or fail to do, whether you have an impact, whether you do a good job of keeping Lent starting today, or whatever. Because the point is that we don’t do ANYTHING to be good. We are good because God takes dust and makes it good.
And whoever else remembers you or not, you can be certain on this day of the promise that God does remember you: this day, and always, and even in death. And that is enough.