Those ashes are alive! If that statement doesn’t make sense, then it fits perfectly with everything else about tonight. What a convoluted, self-contradictory set of readings and rituals! First, Joel: Sound the alarm! God is coming to punish you! But, if you act really sorry, God might forget that this was a punitive visit. Next, Psalm 51: God, we’re really, really, really sorry. Then, Second Corinthians: bad stuff happens to you anyway, often because you are Christian. Finally, Matthew: Don’t sound the alarm! Or wail. And, whatever you do, don’t put ashes on your forehead. Got it? Good. Now, line up to receive ashes.
How do you begin to make sense of all of this? The ashes seem a good place to start. There was a time, not long ago, when the ashes were purely of etiological interest. Luther Reed, in his mid-Twentieth-Century textbook on the liturgy writes: “The significance of the name ‘Ash Wednesday’ is found in the medieval custom of penitents coming to the church on this day in sackcloth and with naked feet. After finishing their prayers, they threw ashes, made from palms blessed the previous Palm Sunday, over their heads.” [Reed, 491] It’s hard to miss the loudly unspoken, “But, obviously, we don’t engage in that nonsense.” Such is our attitude when we have removed the tactile and physical from our faith, when “spirit” is understood purely in the Greek philosophical sense of our immortal souls trapped temporarily in our sacks of flesh, fluid, and bone. We are simply too sophisticated to require such things as ashes.
Ashes are dead. They’re good and dead. We took palm branches, cut them, starved them, dried them, and burned them. So they’re dead. There’s no immortal palm tree soul hanging out, here. And we’re gonna smear them on everyone’s foreheads. They aren’t for show—Matthew’s point is well-taken: we should not make our rituals into simple showing-off. And they’re not for God’s benefit: God is not going to see our ashes and say, “Surely, she couldn’t be the sinner I came to smite,” or, “Awww, look how sorry he is!” Joel’s point is also well-taken: God wants a change of heart. And we don’t get that with a mere reminder that we will die. That statement—you will die—permits too much distance. Death is a boundary and we can pretend we won’t cross it, or that the things on the other side of it won’t affect us until we cross. No, we will receive the ashes with the words, “Remember that you are dust.” We each wear our ashes as a tactile reminder that without God, this is what we are.
We wear our ashes not because we are going to die someday—though we will; we wear our ashes because we have what we have solely on account of Christ. God creates all things through Christ. We have homes because of Jesus. We have food because of Jesus. We have clothing because of Jesus. We have water because of Jesus. We have jobs and own businesses because of Jesus. We have bodies and minds because of Jesus. We have life because of Jesus.
It is disturbingly easy to take what God has given us and turn it into a heap of ashes. This past week was the latest round of Americans publicly hating Martin Shkreli. Shkreli is the guy whose pharmaceutical company bought the rights to the drug Daraprim—which is used to treat toxoplasmosis, a disease that can be fatal to H.I.V. patients—and jacked up the price from roughly $20 a pill to $750 a pill. Overnight, this relatively inexpensive gift from God became just another profit maker, out of reach for most of those who need it. God’s gift became a heap of ashes.
…only, that’s too simple. As Kelefa Sanneh wrote in an article for The New Yorker last week, “One of the strangest things about the anti-Shkreli argument is that it asks us to be shocked that a medical executive is motivated by profit.” Indeed, while Shkreli made even more enemies by being disrespectful in front of a congressional panel, the members of that panel—in a move that straddled all partisan divisions—seemed to want Shkreli to admit that everything was awesome and then he had to go too far. And I have to wonder how I would have reacted had I been called before congress to be raked over the coals for doing something that was legal. So maybe it is more accurate to say that God not only gave us this wonderful medication, but also government, science, personal cleverness and ingenuity, and we, ever so resourceful, managed to make a heap of ashes of all of it. And how much easier is it to make a heap of ashes of the things that are even smaller, like our families, our relationships, or just our own personal lives? The discipline of Lent, which we begin tonight, is a discipline of remembering how easy it is to destroy what God makes.
It is a discipline that ends with an empty tomb, though. I picked on Luther Reed earlier, but his dismissal of the ashes was not all he had to say about Lent. Indeed, he seems to have picked on Ash Wednesday because of his overall concern that Lent tends to be morbidly obsessed with Christ’s suffering in his final days “to the exclusion of practically all other ideas.” Reed puts it succinctly, “Lent should prepare us for Easter, not for Good Friday.” The point of Ash Wednesday and all of Lent is not that we are a heap of ashes, but rather that those ashes are alive because of Christ. On the cross, Jesus traded with us. He said, “You’re gonna hang up here in me, and I will live down there in you.” We have no say—none of us has a No Trade Clause—and if you really want to get technical this is an enactment on one wild Passover weekend of the way things are with God, period: the reason you’re alive is that God lives in you.
Those ashes are alive. If our fate as ashes can reach us even from beyond that boundary of death, how much more can our resurrection with Christ reach us! “At an acceptable time I have listened to you,” says God through the Prophet Isaiah, “and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” It is the promise of life out of ashes, life beyond that boundary of death, life present now in Christ. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!” The ashes of our lives, of our friends and family, the ashes of our careers, the ashes of the creation we ravage—those ashes are alive. Those ashes are alive because Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, has chosen to keep on giving them life. That doesn’t make sense—it’s sure not how I would do things—and it fits perfectly with everything about tonight.