“Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts. . .” (from Collect for Ash Wednesday)
Life and death. We prefer life—maybe because we think we know more about life than about what lies in the realm of death—or we fear what lies in that realm. So we may not want to hold life and death up equally. They are opposites, we might argue. And many of us have had to face those opposites in the last year. Yet I would like to invite you to think about life and death in a different way on this Ash Wednesday.
Water. Ashes. Water gives us life. Water is a symbol of baptism and new birth. Ashes are a symbol of death. At the end of our lives, we return to ashes. We return to the good earth out of which life comes. Adamah. Earth. Yet even as we hold, and consider, these two symbols—one of life and one of death—I would like to invite you into forty days of life—a life that is different. A life that may hold greater richness, depth and joy for you at the end of it.
A while back, I began to read a nightly devotion from Sr. Joan Chittister’s book entitled The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century. Monday night, I read the following: “Each of us should have two pockets,” the rabbis teach. “In one should be the message, ‘I am dust and ashes,’ and in the other we should have written, ‘For me the universe was made.’” I am dust and ashes. And yet, for me the universe was made. In other words, I come from the earth. I will return to the earth. Yet I am part of something greater—the universe, with its vast expanse of galaxies, stars, suns—vast planetary systems I cannot see with my bare eyes, even on a clear, cold winter night in a field.
In his Rule of Life, St. Benedict reminds us of this dual nature of death and life. Benedict set up a rule of life that included prayer, work, leisure. A rule, a balance of life reminds us that we are not God. We cannot seclude ourselves and pray all the time. We cannot rest all the time. We cannot work all the time. If we do one of those things and forget the others, we will throw our lives into a dangerous imbalance. We need life and blessing. We need death and forgiveness.
Benedict structured the prayer life of his community around two psalms: Psalm 67 and Psalm 51. Benedict assumes that we have some kind of prayer life. Psalm 67 is a “plea for continued blessing,” and Psalm 51 reveals our “need for continual forgiveness; a sense of God’s goodness and our brokenness; a sense of God’s greatness and our dependence; a sense of God’s grandeur and our fragility. Prayer, for Benedict, is obviously not a routine activity. It is a journey into life, its struggles and its glories. It is sometimes difficult to remember, when days are dull and the schedule is full, that God has known the depth of my emptiness but healed this broken self regardless, which, of course, is exactly why Benedict structures prayer around Psalm 67 and Psalm 51. Day after day after day.”
Our journey through life has the reminders of blessing and need for forgiveness. It is full of life and joy, and it is full of struggle, pain, betrayal and death. Yet we do not give up hope. We look at this water and we remember. We remember that 50-60% of our bodies are made up of water. We remember that water is both a symbol of life and of death. We can drink water. We can also drown in it.
Every time we have a baptism, I move my hand through water in this baptismal font. I feel the wetness and fluid nature of the water. I make the sign of the cross IN it as I bless the water. Then—because you cannot see that sign—I make the sign of the cross OVER the water three times—in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. I then take a beautiful big sea shell—symbol of baptism and new life that it is—and with it, I pour that clear, holy, fluid water over the forehead of a baby or a child or a teenager or an adult who has come to those waters of new birth. Three times, they feel that water. They have decided—or their parents on their behalf—to follow Jesus. To learn from Jesus. To walk with Jesus. To do what Jesus did—come to worship for prayer and spiritual nourishment, then to go out into the world to be the healing hands of Jesus. To feed the hungry, to visit people in jail, to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with the God who creates, redeems and sustains us—over and over, day by day by day.
Then there are the ashes. The ashes are dark and grainy. They need a bit of holy oil mixed in with them to make them stick. Perhaps it is fitting that I mix a bit of holy oil into these palm branches ground to dark, grainy powder, because at baptism, after I pour water over someone’s forehead, I make the invisible, yet indelible sign of the cross on his or her forehead. “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever,” I say. Forever. Day by day by day into forever. A forever that means that after all the water in my body is gone, and I am only coarse, grainy ashes given back to Mother Earth, I belong to God, the creator of heaven and earth.
“I am dust and I am ashes. AND for me the universe was made.” I am a blessed, beloved child of God. I must never forget that. You are a blessed, beloved child of God. You must never forget that.
During these forty days of Lent, I invite you to find some way to remind yourself of your two pockets. Make two cards. On one, write “I am dust and ashes.” On the other, write “For me the universe was made.” Every day, read Psalm 67 and Psalm 51. We may have come from dust and to dust shall we return. However, what we do between those times of dust and ashes makes a difference. We can waste that time on worry, work, clutter, eating or drinking to dull the pain we carry in our hearts and bodies, living a terrible imbalance of existence. Or, today, we can vow to live our lives differently.
God invites us to think about how imbalanced our lives are between dust and ashes. God invites us to remember that we are beloved children, created for a purpose. In these forty days, I invite you to think about that. Why are you here? For what purpose has God put you here, right now on this earth? You have something to do. Something you are supposed to do. What is that? Maybe you know, and have been avoiding it. Maybe you don’t know, so you need to spend some quiet time to reflect about it, to ask God what that something is.
Life and death. Water and ashes. The ability, the potential to live the time we are given to its fullest potential. “I am dust and ashes.” “For me the universe was made.” Put those cards in your pockets. Pray them. Think about them. Wonder with them. At the end of Lent, we will celebrate how we have lived. Fully. Differently. Thoughtfully. Joyfully. Always with joy. Always with love. Always with love. Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 From entry on Feb.16 – June 17 – Oct. 17 in Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992 & 2010), 113.
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