“Remember, from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.”
With these words spoken, someone smears ashes across the forehead or back of the hand of another human being.
Ashes and Dust have long represented both penitence and mortality. Judaism, along with other Ancient Near Eastern religions had religious acts in which people would cover themselves with ashes or dust or both. Some thought this process of abasement would appease their gods, which in turn, would stop their wrath and spare the people’s lives. Another perspective was that this process helped people to humble themselves – their hearts, thoughts, and lives – so that they could open themselves up to better ways of living.
Christian tradition incorporated the ashes and dust symbolism and language centuries ago, and during the period of Lent, it is often accompanied by self-denial.
Denial in Lent isnot to deny that we are broken or imperfect with the “I’m okay, you’re okay, so it’s all okay” attitude. Rather in Lent we acknowledge: “I’m not okay, and you’re not okay, but that’s okay, because God loves us, and God can bring beauty from ashes, life to dry bones, and out of Dust God creates life.”
(thanks to a friend and colleague, Sara, for this wording)
Denial in Lent is not just denial for denial’s sake, because we deny ourselves of something in order to help us focus on something else.
Denial in Lent isnot easy. It will not be easy to give up something already happening. Unlike some friends in college who said that they would give up kissing for Lent. I said, half-jokingly, “But odds are you wouldn’t be having that opportunity anyway…”
Denial is Pursuit. Instead of focusing your Lenten journey on what you might give up, I invite you to consider Lent as an opportunity for pursuit – pursuing God, pursuing a deeper discipleship, pursuing love, etc. – for a posture of pursuit will allow and welcome transformation.
In the natural process of pursuit, we will have to leave some things behind.
Here are some examples:
If we want to pursue forgiveness, then we will need to begin to let go of grudges and bitterness. If we want to pursue service of God through serving others, then we might need to switch our schedules or life’s agendas or when we watch TV. If we want to pursue kindness, then we will need to deny the tendency we all have to judge or gloat or gossip. If we want to pursue reading parts of the Bible, then we might have to deny ourselves of some sleep (if we get up early to do it) or time on the internet. I’m sure you can come up with more things, so, what is an area in your faith journey would you want to pursue?
“From dust you have come and to dust you shall return” are words to remind us of our mortality and our need for repentance, which is another way to say our need for God’s love to heal our brokenness, transform our selfishness, and restore our joy, hope, and peace. Remembering we are dust allows us to live into the possibilities of pursuing life as God intended at Creation.
What will you pursue this Lenten journey?