Though Lent is a painful experience for me, Ash Wednesday is a different story. I don't take joy or twisted pleasure (as it seems some Lutherans do) in reflecting upon my finitude or death: "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I don't believe I subscribe to a theology of glory, either.
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
I find peace in this Ash Wednesday proclamation. How?
1. "Remember that you are dust." Some might interpret this to be a sort of worm theology, as if to say "you, human, are basically nothing. Worthless dirt. Get used to it." In the biblical narrative, I would take this statement to mean--you and I are made of simple things, we are carbon life forms, simple dirt. But we are also more than dirt, wonderfully complex yet from very simple beginnings. A wonder--from the mind and heart of God. Something so simple, yet so complex, that contributes to the wonders of life. To be sure, life is can be just as painful as it is joyful, but it is wonderful. Reflecting upon humanity's (and my own) beginnings communicates to me a generous God who makes life to be full of possibility--because I am so simple, yet so complex.
2. "And to dust you shall return." Though Christians believe in an afterlife, some still seem to take pleasure in emphasizing the pain of death (see Mel Gibson and the Sad Dane Lutherans). The story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection highlights the pain of death. Yet, the second half of our Ash Wednesday statement is a reminder to me that I need not be crushed by the burdens of my beginning or my end. My sin and shortcomings certainly contribute to the pain of the world. God holds the mysteries of my beginning and end. I don't subscribe to the idea that the time of my death or a death is God's will. I believe our Ash Wednesday statement lifts up the mystery of life and God's crafting of it. The ashen cross placed on my forehead reminds me that God overcomes my destructive tendencies in the resurrection of Christ.
As this blog only contains middlebrow theology on its best days--I know I have colleagues who would challenge my observations and constructs. My experience of Ash Wednesday is a powerful reminder of God's action in the world--both on a grand scale, and my place in that world. I am reminded of my finitude, yet that my contributions add both suffering and joy to the world and that the mystery of God holds this all in wisdom and care.