In the Pockets
Who is it for, this ancient ritual, the practice of marking the forehead with ashes? It might make more sense if we held our Ash Wednesday service at 8 o’clock in the morning or at midday, so that we were likely to encounter other people afterward. Then we would function as a reminder of the holy day. But we have this service in the evening, and then, chances are, most of us will go right home and immediately wash the ashes off our foreheads. So what’s the point? Why do we bother?
I believe we need this action as a powerful and moving reminder of a couple of seemingly contradictory truths: One is that we are dust, and the other is that we are God’s own unique creation.
Every day, you and I are surrounded by appeals to the lowest common denominator. News coverage, advertising, and campaign speeches all tend to be driven by division and fear. Powerful corporations spend large amounts of money to convince us of two illusions: One is that we are incomplete and inadequate, and the other is that all our problems are someone else’s fault.
Consider what had to happen for you and me to come into being: God stooped down. We did not initiate our own creation; we did not look at the dirt and see in those grains a potential person; instead, God came to us. God stooped down and beheld the dust and saw in it something that the universe needed: a person just exactly like you and like me.
That means that God created each of us out of what we would consider waste, disposable stuff, dirt. When we encounter dust, usually we would sweep it up and throw it away. It has no use for us. But when seen through God’s eyes, that stuff that we would discard becomes the foundation of something with astonishing potential.
That means that God invites us, wants us, desires for us to bring our whole selves to Him. In the presence of the Creator is not the time for you and for me to put our best foot forward and pretend that all our faults and flaws and failures don’t exist. God wants all our stuff. Because it is our very shortcomings that God uses to shape us into something new.
Even as the world around us tries to convince us that we are inadequate, that we will never be good enough, God’s actions inform us that our incomplete and imperfect selves are exactly what God uses to create. So it is hardly news to God that you and I are running over with faults and flaws and failures.
But the other part of this truth is that when God came to us, when God stooped down to the dirt and the dust to create us, He made us in His own image. That’s right: You and me, and each of us, made out of discards and dust, are made in the image of the Almighty and Ever-living God. We are made of the stars that fill the heavens, that bring light and order to the universe.
Rabbis teach that each of us has two pockets. In one should be the message, “I am dust and ashes,” and in the other, we should have written, “For me the universe is made.” These two ideas go hand in hand as we travel through the Lenten journey.
And that’s why we mark the cross on our foreheads in dust and ash. To remember two vital and Godly truths: That you and I are invited to bring our whole selves to God, shortcomings and all, because in the hands of the Creator, those very things we believe are faults become the framework of our being. And that our being, warts and all, is a reflection of the One who made us.