Meditation on Ash Wednesday
From dust we came and to dust we shall return. I know this truth all too well as a minister praying over the burial urn containing all that once was precious life. The day will come when we too will fold back into the embrace of Mother Nature.
But that is only part of the story. A love story, I remind you, that promises never to end. Inside each one of us there is a gospel percolating, a story of great love waiting to be lived and shared, a saint charged with delivering Love into the world, and a soul that will transcend the dust and live on.
Imagine, over 800 years ago, you are sitting in a bustling Italian piazza, the church bells are chiming, the Bishop’s palace, an impressive backdrop. There, in the center of the square, is a young man, finely dressed befitting his class. He is clothed in the richest garments of velvet and embroidered in threads of gold and silver. He comes from a well-known family. His father is a powerful cloth merchant who has insured that his son has all the best life could offer. The young man is educated, skilled in sword-fighting and the code of chivalry, with a prosperous future ahead. Suddenly, he does something extraordinary. He strips off all of his clothes and stands there naked for God and all the world to see.
That day, a beautiful thing happened. San Francesco di Bernardone, or as you may know him, Saint Francis of Assisi, lost his luxurious life to gain it back many times richer in God’s glory.
St. Francis would spend the rest of his life pushing the limits of his humanity, his very dust, in the service of Love.
I believe that at death our bodies are somewhat like St. Francis’s clothing. Tossed enthusiastically aside, as mere dust, for the resurrected one, and the revelation of God’s eternal plan for each of us.
In the meantime, we are each here for a holy purpose. I remind you that every day is counted in the Book of Life. The Divine hourglass shows no mercy on that account. We are only permitted so many breaths in the gorgeous order of creation here on earth. It’s an honor to wear the rich garments of flesh and bone, but it comes with responsibility.
Think of your life here on earth as your divine becoming. You are a pupil at the Earth School and God is your headmaster. He champions you, pushes you, and encourages you to use your gifts for the greater good. He knows your soul intimately and believes in your divine potential. The Headmaster allows us wayward students to headlong make mistakes, fail, trip over our clumsy feet of pride. He gently lifts by the arm his most stubborn and lost charges, lovingly replacing despair with hope. High honors go to the students who show an exceptional aptitude for sacrificial love and have mastered the art of surrender, trusting all that they are, their hopes and fears, their todays and their tomorrows, to God’s will.
Over the next 40 days, we will walk in the familiar, and sometimes painful footsteps of the Earth School’s finest alum, Jesus. He remains the most powerful example of extraordinary Love. Christ shows us how to leave the dust behind and re-clothe ourselves in the luminous threads of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, joy, and always Love. Jesus has dutifully taken every class offered at the Earth School: Suffering 101, Poverty and Injustice, Miracles, Prayer and Meditation, Joy, Death, and his crowing achievement, Resurrection.
Jesus knew that there was more to the story than dust. He gave his very life to prove it.
A popular game in the Earth schoolyard is Ring around the Rosie. I’m sure you remember it: Ring around the Rosie’s, pocketful of Posie’s, ashes, ashes, we all fall down. It’s the Earth School anthem. We all fall down. Over and over again we fall down. St. Paul said it, “We all fall short of the glory of God, and yet, God redeems us by grace.”
We fall down. But then we get back up. We get up because the Headmaster is a faithful and loving God, who refuses to give up on us. He knows the truth: We are so much more than dust. We have a holy destiny of Love set before us. So we fall. And then we honor God when we get back up and try to love better.
The Earth School is not for the faint of heart. It requires discipline, perseverance, creativity, trust, and boundless hope. Don’t expect your days to be filled with hall passes and endless recess. There is work to be done. Heaven forbid, that we might fail to live up to the love that is in us.
During this holy season of Lent, let’s confront our humanity. Peel our lives back to the holiness. Remove the prickly and often garish garments of pride, anger, greed, self-absorption and the need for control. Let go of the resentments, fears, and secret feelings of inadequacy, so that all that is left standing in the piazza for God and all the world to see is a willing heart. Only then can we serve God truly and play a meaningful role in His mission of Love.
I remind you again what the Headmaster said, “I have plans for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Do we believe this? Do we believe in the sweet spot of mercy where love changes everything, where heaven breaks through the dark clouds, where miracles do happen, and graduation from the Earth School is rewarded with the gift of resurrection?
The symbol of the cross upon our foreheads marks us as belonging to God. But most importantly, the cross of ashes reminds us that there is more to this story, our story, than just dust.
We fall and then we rise.
Live in Hope,
P.S. I invite you to come to our Ash Wednesday service this Wednesday at 6:30 pm at Woodmont Christian Church.