While these reflections usually focus on the Sunday readings, I
also realize that many of us will be preaching today because of the
special Ash Wednesday services (myself included!). So, I thought I
would share a few reflections on the day. Some of these thoughts may
also help us reflect on the entire season of Lent and so may provide
background for other preachings during the Lenten season we are
Ash Wednesday. The very title has an ominous ring to it. Add to
that the somber reminder as ashes are imposed on our foreheads,
"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." The
alternative formula, "Turn away from your sin and be faithful to the
gospel," sounds much better. I want to "be faithful to the gospel."
But I am too quick to skip that opening, "Turn away from your sin."
Sounds like, "Repent!" to me. There it is again, that serious note.
No matter how you put it, I am dust and I must repent.
No getting around the serious shift in sights and sounds the
liturgy just took. Ash Wednesday is preceded by Fat Tuesday’s
excesses because we all know how grim Lent can be. Let’s enjoy
ourselves one last time before we enter the long dark tunnel of
Lenten denial. So goes the popular notion of Lent. But suppose it
isn’t such a glum note? Suppose there is something joyous and
relieving about Lent? Suppose, in other words, it is a time to clear
away the distractions and hear again the liberating message of the
Gospel? And suppose it is also a time to renew our community’s
commitment to spread that message to others by our words and deeds?
Still more, suppose it is a call to live as the reconciled community
we claim to be, wouldn’t that be a powerful message and an
invitation to others to be part of us?
We really don’t need Ash Wednesday to remind us that we are dust.
Reminders of dust are all around us. Dust is what we return to at
the end of our lives. But long before we breathe our last, life
reminds us of the corruptibility of everything. So much of what we
put our confidence in ages, breaks, comes apart at the seams and
wears out. All that is new, shiny and glitzy has a very short life
expectancy. Mortality touches even our most noble human treasures:
loved ones die, sickness limits us, age saps our energies and our
noble efforts to do good feel the strain of the long haul. This
day’s liturgical action puts ashes on our foreheads, dust before our
eyes, but the ashes are just a reminder of what life does to us all
too frequently. It comes over to us and, in one way or another, rubs
ashes on our foreheads, and says, "Remember, you are dust." It is
frightening to thing about how much we forget and run away from this
reality. So much of our society bases our identity and worth on what
we have achieved and what we own. Today says, "Remember, it is
But after we are told to repent we are invited again to "be
faithful to the gospel." We are invited today to remember that we
are baptized Christians, called to be in the world in a unique way.
The world we live in is guided by different standards and norms for
behavior. These ashes also remind us that our old way of life is
dead – turned to dust. We don’t belong to the old world any longer,
so we need to stop living as if we do. We are reborn to a new life.
And our lives in Christian community must reflect this new life and
help others to hear the message we hear today, "Remember all else is
dust" In Paul’s language, our lives are an invitation to others to,
"...be reconciled to God," for we too are "ambassadors for Christ."
Walter Brueggeman, referring to the dust statement in Gen 2: 7
("The Lord God formed the human person of the dust of the ground and
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a
living creature." ), says that the Ash Wednesday liturgical formula
reminds us that the human person is fundamentally material in
origin, subject to all the realities of an "earth creature." And
since dust is no "self- starter," the reality of the human situation
is that we depend on God’s free gift of breath. We are humans
totally dependent on God for each moment of our existence. This is
not a curse, but what it means to be human. So, when we are told to
remember we are dust today, we are also making a statement about
ourselves to God. It is as if we are saying, "Remember our origins,
O God. We are dust without you. So much of what we touch turns to
dust if not done in your name. Sustain us moment to moment in your
life and through the death of your Son, deliver us from our sin."
Who are we humans? We are creatures gifted from moment to moment by
our gracious God and that is not a bad thing to remember as we enter
It is important during Lent not to privatize the season. Over the
generations, with the separation of adult baptism from the Vigil, we
lost a sense of the communal nature of Lent. What we got instead was
a highly individualized experience focusing on private spirituality
with personal penances and "spiritual development." As always the
scriptural readings give us balance and keep us on track. While we
won’t be focusing on Joel notice, in passing, the call for the
assembly to gather, "notify the congregation, assemble the
elders...." The community is being gathered and reminded to turn
back to God, "...rend your hearts not your garments and return to
the Lord your God."
The selection from 2 Corinthians puts our Lenten focus on the
community’s renewal in mission. Paul’s letter reveals that the
Corinthian community showed the same flaws as our own church
communities. (The first thing we said in today’s eucharistic
gathering was, "Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have
mercy.") We do tend to idealize the early church community, don’t
we? It’s as if they were the perfect model of what it means to be a
Christian community and we are always falling short of their mark.
But they were, and we are, always in need of reconciliation. In
fact, Paul speaks very boldly, appealing on God’s behalf for this
reconciliation. Jesus is the sign that God wants to be reconciled to
us. There is an urgency to this appeal for reconciliation. "Now is
the acceptable time." Things must have been pretty hot among the
Corinthian Christians! We may be resistant to God and to changing
our ways ("Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel."), but
God, is once again, taking the initiative to appeal to us to return.
Throughout the first 7 chapters of this letter Paul is focusing
on the gospel message of reconciliation and on the nature of
Christian ministry. This community was split into bickering
factions. Paul can be quite harsh in his criticism of them. Christ’
death has reconciled us to God and so, not to live as a reconciled
community is to deny that gospel and to fail to be, with Paul, an
"ambassador for Christ" to the world. Lent calls us back to God and
to each other in community. The message we are to proclaim is a
message to be preached by the witness of the whole community as we
live out our joyful awareness of what God has done for us.
for a link to this Sunday’s readings: