I have long struggled trying to understand the Gospel of this day and the ritual that accompanies the beginning of this 40 day season of Lent. Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them….When you pray do not be like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see….When you fast do not look gloomy like the hypocrites…. And then we go and then we go and put big marks of ashes on our foreheads…as plain as day about what we are doing…what we believe…and who we are….and it always seemed in direct contradiction to the Gospel.
But it is only a contradiction if….if….we understand the mark of ashes on our foreheads to be a reminder that we are sinners and we are praying for Gods mercy and redemption.
But maybe….just maybe…that has been or has become the primary Christian narrative of our time and maybe….just maybe that understanding is far, far from the original understanding of the human person and the human condition. A narrative is a story…if you will….it is what we tell ourselves and others about who we are and what we believe….it is the operative understanding from which we live our lives.
For years, in fact for many centuries in many Christian circles, both Protestant and Catholic, we began operating from a narrative of depravity…a narrative that says that we are sinful—sinners…made popular in beloved songs like “Amazing Grace”…it saved a wretch like me!
There are many historical and theological reasons for this fundamental narrative shift….but make no mistake my friends….that is a shift that is far from the original meaning of the word we translate into English as “sin” or “sinful” The Greek word for sin is hamartia, which literally means “missing of the mark”
Isn’t it interesting that we “mark” ourselves at the beginning of this season? Missing the mark….is a far cry from being a wretch….. Listen to this from the Book of Genesis…. Chapter 2…beginning verse 5 At that time when God made the earth and the heavens, there was as yet no wild bush on the earth nor had any wild plant yet sprung up for God had not yet sent rain upon the earth and no human had been yet created to till the soil. A stream was welling up out of the earth watering the surface of the ground. God fashioned the first human from the dust of the earth and blew into that human the very breath of life and human life became a living, breathing being. That is a far cry from being a wretch…God fashioned the first human from the dust of the earth….
Maybe the mark of ashes and those words…re-member that you are dust and to dust you will re-turn…. maybe it is not a reminder of our depravity, but rather a reminder of
our fundamental holiness…. The holy dust from which we are created… Then the Greek word for “sin”—hamartia… missing the mark….is not something we do because of our inherently sinful nature….but rather it is something we do when we don’t live into the holiness in which we were created….
It puts an entirely different understanding of “sin” into this season….and it puts an entirely different understanding on the mark of ashes that will soon be on our foreheads… I have adapted and amended a beautiful reflection offered by Jan Richardson…in her work titled: Circle of Grace and I offer it to you for your reflection:
Blessing the Dust
A Blessing for Ash Wednesday
Do you remember all those days you felt like dust, like dirt, as if all you had to do was turn your face toward the wind and be scattered to the four corners of the earth, or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial— Do you not know and remember what the Holy One can do with dust? This is the day we freely say we are scorched. This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning. This is the moment we ask again for the blessing that lives within the ancient ashes, that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth. So let us be marked—not for sorrow.
And let us be marked–not for shame.
Let us be marked–not for false humility or for thinking we are less than we are. But let us be marked– for claiming what God can do within the dust, within the dirt, within the stuff of which the world is made, of which we are made.
Let us be marked to remind us that stars blaze in our bones and the galaxies spiral inside the smudge we bear.Let us be marked to remind us that we are the ancient dust from which God created all. That we are holy dust. The mark is our mark of ancient holiness, not a mark of shame or sorrow, but of joy filled hope in a future that is truly ours—because we are dust…and to dust we will return…
Jan Richardson: Circle of Grace-Adapted by Rt. Rev. Martin Shanahan