“This is the time of tension between dying and birth.”
T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
Today is the first day of Lent. When I go to church this evening, the sanctuary will be draped in purple. The altar will be bare of the usual floral explosions. It will be quiet and dim. Today my face will be marked with ashes to remind me that I once did not exist as flesh, and that one day again, like so much dust, my body will disintegrate. Having a child made me acutely aware of mortality – witnessing the beginning of a life only drove home that there is an end. Ash Wednesday reminds me of the same thing: Rember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
I know that many people – religious and non-religious alike – don’t understand the season of Lent. To outside eyes, it seems Christians subject ourselves to guilt, berate ourselves with our failings, and give up our pleasures. All for what? To appease an angry God who demands perfection? To strip ourselves of the trappings of earth in order that we might prepare for the white clouds and bright light of a poorly imagined heaven?
No. To acknowledge the holy dirt that forms our bodies, and to seek the sacred light that illuminates our souls.
Every Lent I return to the knowledge that the dust that forms me has been shaped by the breath of God. I love this tension between the earthy and the ethereal. All that comes with being mortal – beauty, love and intelligence as well as hard work, suffering and plain old dirt – is holy. And just to prove to us how beautiful and holy the heaven that our earthly life leads to is, God became dirt himself. Jesus entered into and sanctified humanity in order that we would see how this world reflects His world, and how His world is the fulfillment of this world perfected. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen. Let it be done according to His will.