On Ash Wednesday… on this day when we implore the people, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (see Genesis 3:19), it seems oddly out of place, at least at first glance, to also issue a plea for reconciliation to God. Sure, there are immediate parallels that might be drawn. The creator God formed humanity out of dust and breathed God’s very own life and spirit into the lifeless form. The resurrecting God can re-gather that same dust and breathe again. Check . Let’s all go home. Unless, of course, there is something more to be heard here… something that happens in the liminal space between creation from dust and return to such… something all wrapped up in lament and silences and presence and salvation that require more time and attention than we often want to surrender. Acceptable time. Time that has now come (and lingers).
Paul doesn’t miss a beat in this letter to the Church at Corinth. Just as Christ became something he was not, for the sake of righteousness; Paul already claims to have taken a page from that book and to have “become all things to all people” (see I Corinthians 9). Since his own second chance at life and ministry, he has been careful not to cause others to stumble, but he doesn’t want the Corinthians to be unaware of the risks (which all too often have become the reality). To “commend” here (συνιστάνοντες; sunistanontes) might also mean to “consist.” When Paul lists as the life of God’s servants: great endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger; he does not qualify this with “maybe” or “sometimes.” These are not just occasional attributes: They define the essence of life itself, and a chosen life at that.
Think carefully. God is listening. God is helping and saving. But we are still dust.
Do we dare risk this kind of hazardous existence? It’s tenuous! As I read this list, I can almost feel my skin shedding. But that’s not really all that unusual. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Donald Miller in his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: “The human body essentially recreates itself every six months. Nearly every cell of hair and skin and bone dies and another is directed to its former place. You are not who you were last” (67) September. So maybe the more important decision is not whether or not we will leave pieces of ourselves all over the place (we’re already doing that) but where and how we will leave them.
Lent is for stripping off layer after layer of ourselves, and it is terrifying, because who knows what we might be left with in the end. Oh, wait. I know. Dust. We don’t really want to be exposed. It’s ugly. We don’t want to be exposed before the Lord, and we sure as heck don’t want to be exposed in front of other people. But we are being rent, and to be rent is to be torn apart, split, divided, disturbed, distressed… forcefully, even violently. No one looks good enough when this is happening. No one looks presentable when it is finished. And this is happening all the time! It is the natural process of life… and death.
But do not be dismayed just yet, because there is more. As we leave our sanctuaries with ashes spread across our foreheads, the season of lent begins, and this is a time for reflection. Paul goes on to write about the spirit of this discordant life with the little conjunction, “by.” How can we possibly endure it? “By purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left” (v.6-7). A case could be made for extensive commentary, teaching, and preaching on every phrase in that list, but at the initiation of this particular church season, I am most caught up in the concept of genuineness. Ash Wednesday signifies our unity at the very core of who we are and calls for the repentance that comes clothed in literal ash as we empty ourselves of everything less than what we should be to God, to others, and even to our very own existence. It is confessional in nature, a sign of our lives completely broken and burned away to nothingness and our universal need for forgiveness of personal, corporate, and systemic sin. As we stand on the same footing with everyone we hold up on idolatrous pedestals and everyone have come to view as dispensable, we realize anew that we have this death in common. This is about honesty and transparency, and it is ultimately about preparation for sharing in Christ’s death.
Paul’s list of lists concludes with a collection of dichotomies which at a cursory glance seem to indicate the proper time for genuinely choosing this harrowing life/death (basically always, in all circumstances) but upon closer inspection reveal yet again the importance of truth and transparency. In almost every pairing, Paul is not juxtaposing these circumstances against one another but, instead, debunking the misunderstanding behind them. We are treated as imposters, but we’re not! We are treated as unknown, but we’re not! (Interestingly, this one might also be interpreted as: We are treated as if we don’t know, but we know!) It looks like we are sorrowful, but we’re rejoicing… as if we have nothing but we have it all! My favorite, however, is couched somewhere in the middle (and I really like the way the NIV translates it): “dying, and yet we live on” (see v.9). We need to do this… this living on… because Lent is also about the preparation for sharing in Christ’s resurrection. On this day of mourning, penance, and dissolution, let us not rush ahead to quickly, but may we also remember that this is not the last word. Yes, we’re all dying. So let us stand in solidarity, recognizing that just as we are all formed from the same dust, so also we need the same grace to rise.