Today is, of course, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent for Western Christians. In the liturgy of The Episcopal Church for today, worshippers receive the sign of the cross made with ash on their foreheads and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Traditionally, the ashes and the words that accompany their administration evoke our own mortality: our life on this earth is limited. Placed within the context of the Lenten season, that reminder of our mortality is also a reminder that we should get about the work of deepening our relationship with God, because our time is limited. The language of the Ash Wednesday liturgy gives us many opportunities to remember just how out of sync with God we often live — which is really what we mean when we talk about “sin”.
Another way of saying this is that we live so much of our lives centered in the False Self, in the most shallow, most ego-driven part of ourselves. We invest great quantities of energy into things that do not last, and spend relatively little time focusing on the deeper dimensions of life. We settle for a self that is too small, and consequently for a life that is too shallow.
And this brings me to another meaning of the ashes of Ash Wednesday: that they are a symbol of mourning. In many places in the Hebrew Bible, we find examples of people putting on sack cloth (a bit like burlap) and sitting in ashes, or heaping ashes on their head, as a sign of deep sorrow, lamentation, mourning, and grief. This is the symbolism that strikes me most powerfully this year.
For Ash Wednesday is a day when we can and should mourn for how often we live centered in what is false and shallow. It is a day to lament how small we so often are, and how that smallness impinges on the lives of others. It is a day to grieve how often we try to pull God down to our level, making a mockery of the Holy One by assuming that God is as small and petty as we. It is a time to regret how out of sync we are.
But ashes are also fertile. They can enrich the soil with which they are mixed, and from ash can rise new life and new growth. And that is the hope of Ash Wednesday, and of the Lenten season. If we were to stop in our mourning, if we were not to move on from our grief over what we are not, then we would indeed be pitiable human beings. The self-reflection to which Ash Wednesday invites us is meant not to stop us, but to move us on, so that self-reflection becomes self-awareness, and self-awareness becomes an opening to the Spirit, and the Spirit leads us into transformation. We pause on Ash Wednesday to consider our own falseness in order to then see how beautiful our True Self is, and to hear God’s call to move toward it.
May this journey of Lent be a blessing for you: may your True Self rise from the ashes.