The pastor reached down and crossed my child’s forehead with a thumb of dark ash.
“Remember that you are dust,” she said, “and to dust you shall return.”
She stretched up for me next and declared it again. Ain’t that a true story, I thought.
I settled back into my seat as the weighty words fell like a rhythmic echo upon those who’d been standing behind me.
You know, how a shovelful of earth slaps the top of a casket.
During the 30 minutes prior to the markings, I’d been mulling over the implications of my daughter’s birthday falling on Ash Wednesday.
“Finally!” she’d announced, hands above her head. “DOUBLE DIGITS!”
The little ones are always wanting to outgrow the childish and vulnerable in themselves, aren’t they? They strain toward more autonomy and power, toward older years, as if an arrival point will greet them there and grant their wishes.
We tell them it isn’t so. “Enjoy what is now,” we say, aware of the ache for simplicity and innocence within our adult selves.
We try to keep the super grim news away from these tender souls – the news that there is only one universal arrival point for all things that change over time.
Remember that you are dust, it goes, and to dust you shall return.
I slouched in the pew and felt cruel for reminding a ten-year-old of her end in the middle of celebrating her beginning.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MY BELOVED ONE!
(p.s. You’re gonna die someday.)
Maybe it IS cruel, I thought. Or maybe it’s just true. Or perhaps it’s the kind of truth that’ll always translate as cruel ’til we hear the rest of the story.
Nonetheless, Ash Wednesday was not meant to invite us to relax in the resurrection or in the hope that remains. We were there to stare down the ugly, to remember our mortality, to remember our sin and our need and our not-God-ness.
We wrote on squares of paper the cancers we wished to have removed. They were scheduled to be executed by fire after the service. I daydreamed of their embers floating somewhere far away to join those already burned up and gone from me.
(In my twenties, I lit up everything from bathroom scales to trauma-stained bedding, because sometimes a good fire is therapy enough.)
We know what sin means, what it feels like against us and inside of us, the many names for it. I got right to it, began exposing what darkness remains in me despite my new heart. Pinched my dull golf pencil and scribbled aggressively in list form until I ran out of room.
The words turned to phrases which turned to sentences of my specifics. Disease will maul us and split us open before it aims to kill, but I was still alive and poking around in mine. It stung. It stung like the wound-cleaning, like the first half of healing.
That night, I began to intentionally lament the million looks of my sinfulness, then the million faces of my humanness, all the while tragically believing they were the same thing.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Matthew 26: 36-38
His soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.
Yes, this one who was born of a woman. This one who grew, learned, hurt, matured, wanted, worked, bled, fumed, thirsted, hungered, hugged, slept, collapsed, prayed, walked, smiled, cried, and became weak.
This one who had wrists, feet, and a side. Who had breath until he didn’t.
This one who died.
But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.
1 John 3:5
No sin. No sin in the one who became sin, whose death ushered in new life. No immoral internal state against God, himself, or another. No soul cancer inside the Christ who overflowed with humanness.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
Our high priest became tempted flesh and prevailed without rejecting the vulnerability in himself. Scribbled it on no list to be burned, held it as no shame to be blotted out.
He simply embraced it as a way to cling to his Father, for the glory of his Father.
The apostle Paul knew this, and how our humanness and sinfulness are not the same thing. And he learned, as we will go on learning, how we must treasure our desperate posture, lest we forget the story.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12: 8-9
Jesus, who calls the children to himself – even the forgotten ones who are still stirring inside adult hearts.
Jesus, who frees us now from our sinfulness, but not yet from the excruciating gift of being fully human. Never from the needs that drop us to his feet.
“Remember that you are dust,” she said to us. “And to dust you shall return.”
Friends, go on and feel fragile. Go on and be weak on your knees, overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, that you might find yourselves alive again and again and again, or for the very first time in Jesus, the human Christ.