Thursday, March 10, 2011
Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of the liturgical season of Lent. Lent is a season of penitence, reflection, and preparation for the week of Christ's Passion. In many traditions, disciples "give up" something for the duration of Lent, as an exercise in self-control and in fulfillment of Christ's admonition to "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also" (Matt. 6:19-21).
Last evening I attended a lovely service at a Presbyterian church in the area. At the conclusion of the service, we were invited to come forward and receive a blessing and the imposition of ashes. It was a beautiful and humbling experience to be reminded of my own mortality, my own fallen nature and need for a Redeemer. As the priest gently drew an ashen cross on my forehead, she called me by name and quietly intoned, "One day through Christ we may live eternally with God. But in this sphere we are mortal, and must remember that we came from dust, and to dust we shall return. We are made from ashes, and ashes are all that will remain." Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. The life cycle of mortals continues. The eternal soul lives on.
After the service, I went to a meeting with friends. It was interesting to me to watch people's puzzled double-takes when they saw my appearance. I watched as their eyes darted to my forehead, quizzical, then to my eyes as they attempted to ignore it, then distractedly back to the black smudge above them, their lips twisted in a bemused smile. It was hard to see past the ashes. Conversation was awkward initially. The ashes came between us all evening.
Now, I don't fault my friends at all--outside of chimney sweeps and coal miners, ashes aren't a typical adornment to faces. But it made me think about how we treat others who walk around in this world with ashes on their foreheads--with something we see that makes them strange or fallen or dirty. Kristine wrote a beautiful essay at By Common Consent about feeling "marked" living as a divorced woman in the church. Divorce is certainly one thing that can make us feel unworthy or broken--and I bet you can think of several other circumstances that might cause you to recoil from the company of another--or that have caused others to recoil from yours.
Sometimes it can be hard to see past the ashes on the foreheads of those around us. It's so easy to see the brokenness and fallen-ness of our fellow mortals, so easy to forget that we, too, are fallen, that we, too, are broken, that we, too, sin. It has changed the way I view others as I have come to understand that Christ's Atonement is enough for my sins--and that it also applies to everyone else around me, that Christ's grace is sufficient for me, AND that it is sufficient for everyone else, that I don't have any business judging others, because they are saved by the very same power that saves me, healed by the very same Lord who heals me, and redeemed by the very same atoning sacrifice that I rely on to redeem me. But when I fall victim to that all-too-common tendency to judge others, to see in the faces of my fellow men only the ashes, and not the glorious immortal beings of eternal potential behind the ashes, it humbles me to realize that I, too, am but ashes and dust, but that the Lord sees past all that, and invites me to "awake, and arise from the dust" and "by the grace of God...become holy, without spot" (Moroni 10: 31,33).
This Lenten season, I'm going to work on extending that same grace to others. I'm going to try harder, in my interactions with others, to see past their failings to their great potential, past their mortality to the glorious fact of our mutual redemption, past the ashes to the spark of divinity within.