As the evening approached I began to get more and more excited. I haven’t been as expectant and excited about a service since the Midnight Communion a few months ago. Ash Wednesday had arrived!
This day, more so than most other feast day, gets to the core of my theology and spirituality. A preacher and minister has to work very hard to fudge the the central message of this celebration and act of worship.
Remember you are but dust and to dust you shall return. Turn from sin and be faithful to Christ.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of the season of Lent, a period of 40 days (plus Sundays) dedicated to repentance and re-dedication to discipleship. This season is known for the tradition of giving up/fasting from certain luxuries or habits that distract us from the work of discipleship and our journey to holiness. The restraining from luxuries, in the modern day, has become seen as some self-inflicted punishment and has betrayed the true reason for participating in such activities: to re-dedicate your life and attention towards Christ, to clear our mind of striving after short-term pleasures and receive the eternal pleasure of knowing God.
But this post is not about fasting and Lenten disciplines.
I approached Ash Wednesday this year with Pope Benedict’s resignation very much on my mind. I, like many others, have been struck by the timing and the manner in which the pope’s statement was made. Through this short and concise proclamation of intent, the pope communicated one thing: humility.
True humility is about naming the truth of one’s status. It is a fine virtue to public live out just before the celebration of Ash Wednesday because humility has its roots in humus (of the earth). The pope’s public declaration clearly spoke of his weakness, a self-awareness of his defects and mortality and limitedness in fulfilling the role to which God called him. In a world obsessed with promoting the strength and potential of humanity, this public resignation sings of our true nature: we are dust.
The pope’s conviction stands powerfully against the lie of this age which says humanity is the source of transformation in the world. We, as a race, need no one else to be great. If we could harness some metaphysical goodness and our inner strength we can achieve all we want and imagine. There is no god but us; we are the source of our own destiny. In this environment it is no surprise that the pope’s resignation and the humility expressed in his statement confuses and baffles our culture.
And so it is with Ash Wednesday! We stand prophetically against the humanism of our society, which, in many forms (Christian as well as non-Christian), grips our philosophy. We reject the temptation to stand on our own and name ourselves ‘good’ and beautiful, worthy of praise and adoration. We deny the powerful narrative that suggests that, if we work hard and gather together we can muster up ‘love’ (whatever that means!) and build a bright future for ourselves. This is a lie!
As Christians we must start with the humility that the pope lived out in making the public statement: we are limited, we are mortal, we are dust.
But the Christian story doesn’t end there, in the fatalistic nihilism that this truth can lead us to. The Christian message is that we are dust (and not God) but, by the grace of God alone, we are able to become living beings. We are not born as living beings, as things worthy of attention and praise. We are born as dust.
Prior to the pope’s announcement our attention was captured with the debate over equality. At the heart of this conversation was the bill of Human Rights which I spoke about in ‘The Hunch, the Compulsion and the Overwhelming Pain’. It begins with the statement: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…’ On Ash Wednesday and through Lent we, as Christians, proclaim a different truth which sounds seductively similar but distinctive: ‘All human beings are born dust and equally in need of God.’
We are equal in the sense we are equally dust, limited, mortal, nothing but we can receive the grace of God if we turn to Him and receive His gift. We cannot deny the giver and receive the gift, allowing its power to transform and change to manifest itself in our lives.
The pope shouted above this view that we, human beings, are the source of significant and lasting transformation of the world, a different view. The Catholic Church doesn’t need Pope Benedict to be the Body of Christ. The Catholic Church, as it has done through out history, needs God, the sole source of transformation and change.
Ash Wednesday begins a narrative in the Church’s calendar that journey’s through Good Friday into Easter and won’t end until Pentecost. There, in the upper room with the first disciples we become aware of our dust-ness but then the Spirit of God moves and causes our lifeless bodies to sing of life, not just existence, but eternal life. The Spirit of God, like a breeze, blows through that room and causes those heaps of dust dance, refracting the light that shines from Christ, the risen Lord.
There’s two failures we as Christians can make: inadvertently deny our dependence on God by promoting humanity as essentially ‘good’ and able to change the world, the other is to deny the power of God to use us, limited and mortal as we are, to show Himself as the sole source of eternal transformation. We so often speak too much of God’s love for us and fail to speak against the notion that we are worthy of that love. We can react to this by pushing too much the sin and darkness of humanity and fail to acknowledge that God has chosen to use our frail bodies.
The pope, in humility, made a bold statement against the humanism of popular culture and proclaimed our absolute dependence on God’s free, unmerited grace on us, unworthy as we are. He proclaims God is good and His love endures forever. We remain powerless until God’s power manifests itself through us. We must clear our lives of our own striving to hold power and receive afresh the gift of God’s presence that transforms us into something.
We are nothing made something by God’s everything.
We are dust caught in the wind of God’s Spirit, dancing in His Light.