a newsletter article


Ahhh, it’s Ash Wednesday! That pleasant time of year for the smear of decay on your forehead and the ringing of mortality in your ears. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Nothing to lift your spirits like being morbid, right?

From that tone, you may expect I’m jesting (and laughing in the face of death was the original role for the carnival jesters).

I suppose there are optimistic ways to appraise life’s short span: a motivation to get to work, the awe of your place amid the sweep of generations, the recollection that all hope and life must come from God because you surely can’t muster it yourself.

On the realistic other hand, I expect we are not entirely predisposed against ashes. We likely have a big picture view that our elements continue to be recycled; you are what you eat, which grew from the ground, and you’ll return to the ground and become another creature’s life. There’s ecological wholeness in that!

There’s also mystical science that reminds you that every atom of your existence was a result of fusion in stars and the gift of supernovae. So when Psalm 103 points out you are “but dust,” you can counter, “yeah, but I’m stardust!”

Again, we are people who particularly recognize the reality of new life surrounding us emerging from the ashes. Last week as we were teaching about the Holy Spirit in Confirmation and asking students to reflect on symbols of wind and fire for the Spirit, while they envisioned the wind as a gentle breeze, fire they saw as a sign of God’s anger. But then they looked out the window at our prairie that is purged and renewed and restored by burning.

Not that we should look for too reasonable of explanations for Ash Wednesday, though. It’s peculiar. We may consider we’re reusing last year’s palm fronds, but those lingering palms are an odd mark. Palm Sunday itself is such a disposable festival; the mood didn’t even last a week! Clinging all year to shriveling leaves from a trampled celebration isn’t sensible.

But maybe we need that awareness, as well. There are things we never understood and uncertainties we would just as soon get rid of. There are renovations we desperately long for. There are unusual rituals that contribute to our identity and lead us home. There are dead ends where our vision can’t foresee a new beginning, and that is the venue of God’s work.

In the water and the witness,

            in the breaking of the bread,

in the waiting arms of Jesus

            who is risen from the dead,

God has made a new beginning

            from the ashes of our past;

in the losing and the winning

            we hold fast.

                                                – We Are Baptized in Christ Jesus

                                                            John Ylvisaker (ELW #451)