Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. A day when many Christians enter into the observance of Lent by the marking of a cross of ash on their foreheads. The ashes are made from the burnt palm leaves from the previous Palm Sunday.
As the cross is marked the priest or pastor says “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Some people get a little weird about Lent. They think it’s too depressing. That it’s demoralizing. Especially people from marginalized communities can feel like the emphasis on repentance and sin and our essence as dust as not helpful. I get that. But I think it helps if we reframe it all.
Palm Sunday was a political protest. When Jesus rode that donkey into town he was saying Ceasar isn’t the boss. Military might and power aren’t how we achieve peace. Peace comes through nonviolence, through community, through challenging systems of oppression.
Jesus’ death and resurrection following Palm Sunday taught us that opposing violent systems can get you killed. But that death doesn’t have the final word.
And yet the violence persists. And yet we are still dying.
Much has been made of the fact that another mass shooting happened on Ash Wednesday, and of the photograph of the crying person with a large ash cross on their forehead that was splashed across news sites.
And as I sat that night and thought about 17 dead children, then had to mark ashes on the heads of children in my care and remind them of their mortality, I felt the tears come. And I let them.
Our culture is awful when it comes to talking about death. We have a million euphemisms that we trot out at every opportunity. Sometimes we use those euphemisms to hide violence (like when we say that an officer discharged their gun and a person was killed instead of saying that the officer shot and killed a person). Sometimes we use euphemisms to hide our discomfort with death. But all of these words are us trying to keep the fact of death at a distance. It does us a disservice.
What I love about Ash Wednesday is that it doesn’t shy away from facing the reality of violence. The reality of our own mortality. The reality that we will die. And that there are systems in place that are killing some of us a lot faster than others.
From the protest of Palm Sunday: We march in the streets to say that Jesus is Lord and American is not. Then a year later we find ourselves still stuck in these systems of oppression and so we burn the protest signs that we once carried so proudly. We realize that those signs aren’t enough. That slogans and words and even voting isn’t enough. So we burn the signs and we mark ashes on our foreheads and we repent of the ways that we still feed into the system. The ways that we perpetuate racism and transphobia and sexism. The ways that we support greed and violence. The ways that we worship America and guns and politics above Jesus as Lord. And we remember that we are dying. That we are mortal. That we are made from dust and that to dust we shall return. And in that remembering we are charged with this: What are we making from our dust? What are we doing with our lives? If we know that we will die (and we all will die) than we should move toward that death unafraid. We should make our dusty days count for something. We should stand up against the structures of violence, stand up against the systems of oppression, stand up and do something to break them. Because we are dust. And we are returning to dust. So let’s use our dust to muck up the system that is killing some people faster than others.
We walk out of the church wearing the sign of our mortality, the sign of our complicity, the remembrance of what really matters. We wear the burnt protest signs as a reminder that our lives are a protest. That we can do something to change things. Violence does not have to be the final word. Tragic and brutal deaths do not have to be the final word. We can bring about a world in which the only deaths are good and peaceful ones. Where death is no longer something to be feared.
Remember you are dust. And get to work.