By Hwa-Young Chong
Genesis 2:4b-8 (NRSV)
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then 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. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
Thought for the Day
In my first year as a pastor, I was excited about the idea of making ashes on Ash Wednesday. I loved the liturgical connection of Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday. Ashes made from the palm leaves of the previous year’s Palm Sunday seemed to reflect the spiritual cycle of Christian life so wonderfully. The task of ash-making was equal to meaning-making to me.
Soon, however, I learned that it was not an easy task. First of all, it was a very windy day. I had a hard time keeping the fire going. When I finally burned enough palms for the service, my face and hands were already all covered with ashes. I also smelled like ashes. Then I was disappointed that the ashes looked more like burnt grass, not like the fine dark sand I had anticipated it to be. I decided to use it for our worship anyway. Then I realized that I accidentally added a bit too much oil to the ashes. So, the ashes were kind of coarse and droopy at the same time. It was too late to start making ashes all over again by that time.
We had a messy Ash Wednesday that year. After the service, I told a few people that I was sorry for making such “bad” ashes. One lady responded, with a bright wink, “Well, it was a most memorable Ash Wednesday service!”
Why do we put ashes on our faces? It’s messy, dirty, and inconvenient.
Ashes are interpreted as human mortality in the Christian tradition. The words of the Ash Wednesday worship poignantly point to this mortality: Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return. We are imperfect, sinful, and prone to failures. At the same time, ashes tell us that we are God’s. The dirt on our faces reminds us that God created us out of dust and breathed life into us. We bear the image of God. We are made to love. There are infinite possibilities of goodness in the world. Life can be beautiful.
Perhaps there is no such a thing as bad or good ashes. Ashes simply remind us that our life can become messy, regardless of our intentions or efforts. We may fail, even though we try our best. We may make a mistake and need to pay a painful price. We may lose something or someone precious without any warning. Yet the grace of God permeates through what seems impermeable, shines in the darkness, and smooths the rough spots. The cross of Jesus is a testimony to such grace.
We are from ashes and shall return to ashes, from God to God, from love to love. In the end, we are but spirits in God. May the messiness of ashes lead you to the amazing grace of God today, this Lent, and beyond.
Dear God, thank you for giving me life. In this new season of Lent, help me to find your beauty in the messiness of life. May our life be a witness to your love in the world. Amen.