It’s Works-for-Me Wednesday, and it’s also Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. If you don’t belong to a religion that observes Ash Wednesday–or even if you do–you may never have thought about where churches get the ashes that are used to draw a cross on each person’s forehead to remind us that our physical bodies are made from dust and will return to dust. The ashes are made by burning dried palm fronds, and although it’s possible to buy ashes, the tradition is for each church to make its own by burning the palm fronds that were used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration.
I love that.
Not only is it a clever way of getting two uses out of the same material (not recycling, technically, but repurposing) but it’s a way of bringing us full circle, connecting each year to the next, reminding us that the story of Jesus is not a one-time thing but a series of eternal truths to relive every year. On Palm Sunday, we remember how Jesus came into Jerusalem as a celebrity, welcomed by people waving palm fronds. We wave our fronds and celebrate our Lord walking among us. But then we have to face the terrible things that happened to him over the next five days. (I’m not sure about other denominations, but Episcopalians include some of this in the Palm Sunday service as well as having other services each day of the week or at least on Thursday [the Last Supper and betrayal] and Friday [the Crucifixion].) In just five days, Jesus went from being honored with a parade to being accused, convicted, and executed. Yikes! But then it’s Easter, when we remember how he rose from the dead, and most of the year is about remembering that Jesus, immortal and eternal and unstoppable and willing to share all that with us.
In a way, Lent is a strange part of the church year, because it isn’t a season described in the Gospels: Jesus didn’t spend the forty days before his Resurrection fasting from the pleasures of earthly life and reflecting on his sinfulness and mortality–he was busy spreading the Good News to as many people as he possibly could while he had time! Why, Jesus even said not to fast until he was taken away! So why do we do this?
Well, church tradition has its reasons, but here’s what I have learned over the years: Lent is not only about thinking how dusty and unimportant we are and how bad we’ve been, but also about cleansing and renewal and finding new directions. We give up something so that we can experience our lives without it and learn whether it truly is a luxury or a burden. We confess our sins so that we can set them down and walk away and do better. We stop saying, “Alleluia!” and singing our happiest worship songs for six weeks so that when we start again, we feel all over again the joy of realizing just how wonderful God is and how enthusiastically we mean those words that had become just something we say every week.
We focus on the dust so that we can let go of the dust. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter! (Oh, wait, that’s a quote from Yoda, not Jesus. Well, Yoda was tuned in to some important truths, too.) We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but our spirits are more than dust. Ash Wednesday focuses on our dustiness, and then we have forty days to brush off that dust and focus instead on creating a clean heart and renewing a right spirit.
When I focus on the dust, I realize also that it’s not just my own body that is made of dust but everybody around me and the entire physical world, not just everything we humans have built but every plant and river and rock and supernova. All just dust. What amazing dust! What creative things God has done, and enabled us to do, with dust! It’s been ten years since I first realized this, yet it amazes me all over again every Ash Wednesday.
When I say that we are nothing but dust, I mean that this physical reality is all just peanuts compared to Everything. It is only by acknowledging the dust that we can begin to see through it.
Why, then, does it matter where the dust for today’s ceremony comes from? If all the physical world is all dust, why bother saving last year’s palms to burn for this year’s ashes, instead of burning old newspapers or whatever is handy? Well, look at that word, matter. It means to be of importance, but it’s also a noun that means physical substance. Even as we remind ourselves that matter is not what really matters, we are still living in this physical world, so we may as well draw meaning from it where we can.
Last year’s palms remind us that the triumph of that parade into Jerusalem was only very temporary. Five days later, Jesus was returned to the dust. Why are we still holding onto our palm fronds? Are we clinging to the memory of that earthly and temporary glory? Burn it up! Let it go–but let that decision launch a journey that will bring us to spring and renewal again.
I was raised Unitarian. We did not observe Lent. We did sing this song, which is actually a Shaker hymn:
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning, we come ’round right.
We need to make turns in life’s path in order to go the right way. I need regular reminders to look for the turns, to pay attention to where I’m going. In my years as an Episcopalian, I’ve found that the church calendar and its rituals nudge me to keep turning and coming ’round right. It looks like following the same path every year, but in fact every year is different; the cues are the same, but I keep changing, so my journey takes me someplace new every year.
Back to matter. It’s not the only thing. But physical substance is still of some importance. As C.S. Lewis said, “God likes matter. He invented it.” Our physical world is an amazing gift, and God has given it to us for a reason and entrusted us with caring for it during our earthly lives. That’s why it makes sense to show some respect for the palms that remind us of joy and glory and Jesus, to watch as they turn into dust, to let that dust be placed on our skin reminding us that even our dusty selves can touch the true reality from which joy and glory beam into our dusty lives.
It’s only dust. But the way we choose to use the dust matters.
Visit Your Green Resource for more articles about various aspects of responsible dust management.