On Wednesday many of us in the Christian tradition around the world came together to ritualize the start of the season of Lent. Of course we offered a fresh take on the ritual of ashes. We added water and soil and bubbles.
Throughout the Bible, ashes are a mark of sorrow for sin and separation from God. In the book of Esther we read of Mordecai tearing his clothes, putting on sackcloth and ashes. And we read of Job despising himself and repenting in dust and ashes.
For much of human history, ashes have been a symbol and a palpable sign of mourning and death- tiny grey and black pieces of something that was reduced by flame.
Perhaps some of you know the traditional words when the ashes are put on the forehead: You are dust and to dust you shall return. Some have modernized this phrase with something like, you are stardust and to stardust you shall return. Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” We are star-stuff, we are stardust, and we are dust. The words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” comes from the book of Genesis chapter 3(19) “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return."
So it is on purpose that a Christian ritual offering a chance to be brushed with dust begins the season of Lent. Because dust isn’t soil. Dust is dead. Soil is alive with worms, fungi, insects, bacteria, and organic matter. But dust is fine particles broken down. Dust is disintegration and fragmentation.
I think perhaps this is just what the season of Lent points us to: Dust, wilderness, life broken down. Because wilderness is just another word for uncultivated and inhospitable.
The story we heard from the book of Luke gives us a glimpse of one of Jesus’ wilderness experiences. It is intriguing to me that it was the Spirit that led him there, but it was the devil that tempted him. Sounds like kind of a team effort?
Over the course of his journey, he is put through three tests: one with the offer to be able to make bread: one with the offer to have land and power: one with the offer to top the temple of religious heights: … more ability, more influence, more prowess, more authority.
The wilderness can be a place where it seems impossible to cultivate anything; it can feel uninhabitable and inhospitable. It can be like dust.
And yet… I have found that it also seems to be true that wilderness times can be simultaneously be something else. They can be the place where we are compelled to double down on what we believe, to dare to trust, to fall toward angels…
Wandering in the wilderness at one point in my life I suffered, what I came to understand later was severe situational depression. It was a time that I never hope to repeat, one that was dry and dark. It seemed like a tunnel at times. Sadness was like a blanket so heavy I could hardly move, even when I did see the light. It was a place where it felt impossible to cultivate anything- my insides felt inhospitable. Wilderness…
I don’t believe the Universe sent me there into the arid, dusty time, where it was hard to find a drink, but I do believe I wasn’t alone. And I do believe that something rose in me that became a gift. Maybe it is something like the words of Mary Oliver, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
The wilderness was hard, and long….
My mom showed up in a way that forever changed me and my friends showed love and grace that was hard to process and I was able to feel what it is like to be cared for when little or nothing can be offered in return.
And also at some point that dark dust started to become soil- a rich bed filled with organic matter, from which new life just might grow…
I am not someone who believes everything that happens is part of what a higher power has planned, but I do believe that whatever God is, It moves in us to make us strong when we are weak, it sends us energy and people and creatures, even in the wilderness.
And I wonder if something happens in us, when we make it through, as if maybe we gain more power, when we survive. Depression, divorce, heartbreak or whatever “valley of shadows,” dropping to our bottom, sometimes, later, the darkness can be a gift- sometimes we gain strength, courage, support within ourselves and beyond- to overcome negative voices and choices, so the wilderness within and without doesn’t win.
In the words of Brene Brown, “there is no greater threat to the critics and cynics and fear mongers than those of us who are willing to fall Because we have learned how to rise With skinned knees and bruised hearts; We choose owning our stories of struggle, Over hiding, over hustling, over pretending. When we deny our stories, they define us. When we run from struggle, we are never free. So we turn toward truth and look it in the eye. We will not be characters in our stories. Not villains, not victims, not even heroes. We are the authors of our lives. We write our own daring endings. We craft love from heartbreak, Compassion from shame, Grace from disappointment, Courage from failure. Showing up is our power. Story is our way home. Truth is our song. We are the brave and brokenhearted. We are rising strong.”
Jesus reminds us that even in the driest arid places, when there is testing and trial, when no one is around and it seems as if the world has turned its back, truth is our song.
He basically passes the test from the devil by turning things upside down. He says don’t test God and yet…he wins the test because as scholar Sharon Ringe points out, “Though he refused to turn stones into bread, he does feed the hungry. Though he refused political power, the proclamation of God’s empire of justice and peace is the focus of his preaching and teaching. Though he refused to jump of the temple to see if God would send angels to catch up, he goes to the cross in confidence that God’s will for life will trump the world’s decision to execute him.” 1
It seemed like the arid, dust of the wilderness would be the end…
But the tests and the toil revealed that he could stand true and tall and proud, that he remained steadfast in his commitment to what he professed to love, even in a in a place that seems uninhabitable.
Beloved of God, bless all of you who have survived any wilderness times, “Showing up is our power. Story is our way home. Truth is our song. We are the brave and brokenhearted. We are rising strong.” And if you are in the wilderness right now, know that you are not alone. Keep going; trust, that where there is only dust, one day there might be soil… May it be so. Amen.
1 Sharon H. Ring in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2 Lent Through Eastertide p. 49.