Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the second Lent of the Great Pandemic of the early 21st century.
As Diana Butler Bass confesses: "the whole thing is wearying. How is Ash Wednesday really all that different from any other day in this interminable pandemic?
The entire year has felt like Lent, so today is just another ashy day."
Every time people put on a mask, many think of death and dying. In a year of a half-million deaths of other Americans and millions of people around the world, the Lenten discipline of contemplating mortality seems like one more painful day.
Add to that all the climate-related crises of fire, ice, water, and wind that have killed far too many people this year, and we don’t need ashes to remind us that the world is heavy with sorrow, and that much that we love is being lost and is ending. Every single day is an exercise in mortality, as we see our dusty illusions of existence coming at us like a haboob in the desert.
Frankly, Do we really need the church to remind us of death this season as we have been surrounded by it all year. We are covered in dust.
Dust. Ashes. I know these things. As a forestry major in college, I had to join firefighting teams in the many woods of our country. I know what it is like to see a hillside on fire, to know when to run so one isn’t incinerated, to walk in ashy landscapes of death. Dust and ash aren’t merely reminders of death — dust and ash are death.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Dust may be our ending, but it was also our beginning. Dust and ash are the stuff of creation.
In Genesis 3:6-7 (a poetic account of the beginning), a spring wells up on the dusty earth. From the resulting clay, God fashioned a man, breathed on him, and thus created humankind: The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
We know here in far West Texas that the deserts do bloom. Charred landscapes birth new forests. From dust and ash come flowers and trees and fruitful fields. Dust is not nothing; ash is not nothing. Dust and ash are necessary for life. Repentance isn’t the point. Recognizing the circle of creation, the connectedness of all existence — that is the point.
Somehow, in this miserable pandemic, this endless season of death, even this dust and ash will become the humus of new life, a recreation of who we are, what we do, and how we love.
Lent is our time to prepare to carry the crosses of the world ourselves. The people around us are hungry; it is up to us to see that they are fed, whatever the cost to ourselves. Children around us are in danger on the streets; it is up to us to see that they are safe. The world seems to be at the mercy of US foreign policy, US economic policy and US militarism; it is up to us to soften the hearts of our own government so that the rest of the world can live a life of dignity and pride.
Lent puts options before us. We can choose to be open or hardhearted, attuned to God or closed to everything but the self, full of faith or drowned in despair, stagnant or full of life. Lent is a choice of directions: life or death
Being in the desert, we need to look for water in this dry land. I believe we have had quite enough of death. We need to be longing for life.
This Lent, let us await the spring rising from the parched ground, and wonder how we are being fashioned into a new people. We need to be looking for water in this dry land. Have we had enough of death......Maybe it's time to long for life.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
— Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
I imagine Lent for you and for me as a great departure from the greedy, anxious antineighborliness of our economy, a great departure from our exclusionary politics that fears the other, a great departure from self-indulgent consumerism that devours creation. And then an arrival in a new neighborhood, because it is a gift to be simple, it is a gift to be free; it is a gift to come down where we ought to be.
― Walter Brueggemann
Stay safe, warm and well.....Shalom,