Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris … Remember, man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
There are no more Alleluia’s for the next 40 days. The colors have now changed from the vibrant green of ordinary time, into a deep purple, which is symbolic of pain, suffering, grief, royalty, and spirituality all connected to the incarnation of Jesus- God in the flesh. The liturgy will consist more of penitential language that calls us into a period of fasting, repentance and self-examination. Similar to Jesus’ entering into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, so we too will enter into the wild.
I would argue that if the season of Advent was the coming of Christ, then Lent is the encounter.
Intro to Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent, extending 40 days and 40 nights, give or take a few days depending on your observances. This time, encounter Jesus’ journey into the wild, into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, where he experienced: fasting, darkness, solitude, and many trials.
Our journey through Lent is reflective of the life of Christ and his sojourn. This season of self-emptying, a spiritual kenosis if you will, in order to be open to the voice and movement of God while journeying through a metaphoric wilderness is meant to serve as way to atone for our sins while deepening our faith in God. There are various ways to fast or empty oneself of worldly attachments in order to deepen our faith in God and our understanding of humanity.
Some journeys may include fasting:
- Dietary Fasts- abstaining from eating sugar and carbs or all liquid
- Time Designated Fasting- where meals are only eaten at certain times of the day
- Technological Fast- where’s one disconnects or social media
- If you really want 40 days and 40 nights of a true wilderness experience, fast from coffee. (That would create a wilderness experience for everyone within a certain radius of you!)
Fasts help us to lose some of the baggage we’ve accumulated over the years-whether its spiritual weight or physical weight-especially winter weight, the season of Lent helps us to reflect on the interconnectedness of the two while, relying heavily on the power of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The detoxification works in tandem with contemplation, meditation, confession, repentance and humility.
And so too, this Ash Wednesday, this first day of the Lenten season, marks the beginning for us to reflect on our deeds or misdeeds, examine our hearts, atone for our sins, repent of the ill we perpetuate or are complacent in or
feel apathy toward-all while remaining humble, not boasting of the “good works”we’ve done, because it should not be an expectation to be rewarded for doing the good that you’re suppose to do-feeding the hungry, offering alms to charities, and sharing clothes. We as Christians like to pat ourselves on the back from time to time, over how much we gave, which affirmation can be helpful, but it can also be harmful as it puts us at risk of being boastful, proud, and arrogant. This is a time to be humble, do works in secret and God will bless us in secret.
The ash reminds us that we are dust and we will return to dust.
- Reminds us of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- Reminds us of our beginning and our end.
- Reminds us of our sameness, because we all came from dirt and will return to dirt — dust sounds much better than dirt, but we’ll go with it for now.
- Reminds us that dust is our end, but the dust is also our beginning; a rebirth, similar to the symbol of the Phoenix — a mystical bird who was depicted in beautiful imagery — rising from its ashes.
- Reminds us of our mortality and how close we are to it.
Atul Gawande wrote in “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End”:
Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone….But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be. We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way.
Gawande’s reflection on the field of medicine highlights the pressures we face personally and professionally. As someone once quoted, “We are only messengers, not the messiah.” We as human beings are mortal, finite, and limited in our capacity to be all things to all people. Pressures that are imposed on us or we impose on ourselves becomes the very aspects of our lives that we need to fast from during this season. Gawande’s mapping of palliative care in medicine can also serve as a blueprint for us as human beings, because we think our job is to fix everyone else’s problems, while yet struggling with our own.
- Be with people in their darkest times and to remind them that God is with them even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
- Remind people that God still loves them even when they don’t love themselves
- To love people even if and when they are “dirt” or “dirty” or “dust” or “dusty”, because essentially we are all dust
There is a limit to what we as human beings can do, and because we are limited, sometimes we feel a loss of control and experience powerlessness, resulting in feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety, because we can’t fix. Perhaps for this time and season, it is not up to us to “fix,” but we have to relearn how to trust in God, knowing we did all that we could do with the resources that we had and surrender to God’s will and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Repent and Remember
This is a time of repenting and remembering.
- We repent of greed. We are to remember those who are impoverished and for whom “giving up something” is viewed as a privilege.
- We repent of self-consumption. We are to remember those who are still in the wilderness from 2018 and the 40 days and 40 nights have since turned into years
- We repent of violence. We are to remember those who experience soul-injuries as a result of war
- We repent of racism. We are to remember those who experience discrimination based on the color of their skin
- We repent of heterosexism. We are to remember those who experience discrimination based on their sexual identity
- We repent of detachment. We are to remember those who weep in the night and whose joy has not come yet in the morning
- We repent of segregation and fear of the other. We are to remember that while we yet have breath in our body that God calls to us to unify as a people, not despite our differences, but because we are different
- We are to repent of misuse of time, because it is short and so very precious.
We are to remember that, “We are dust, and to dust, we shall return.” Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris…
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Deacon Shayna Watson at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral on March 11, 2019, for Ash Wednesday. The readings for the day, which can be found at this link, are:
- Isaiah 58:1-12
- Psalm 103:8-14
- 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
- Matthew 6:1-6,16-21