Pastor Jean’s Message for the March 2023 Footnotes newsletter
“You make beautiful things-Michael Gungor
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us”
Lent is here! Our Lenten Programs have begun. Our 40-day journey with Jesus is upon us. We begin Lent every year with Ash Wednesday. By the time the Footnotes is published, Ash Wednesday will have passed. Since not everyone will come to our Ash Wednesday service, I will offer my reflection on the Ashes here.
In the book of Jonah, we have a decidedly hilarious story about a man who literally runs away from God. You see, God instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell the people there to repent their sins to avoid destruction (think fire from the sky kind of destruction). But Nineveh is the remnant capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the brutal and conquering empire that destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The audience for Jonah would have known this and they would have understood Jonah’s plight. Why should Nineveh be forgiven? They would have understood why Jonah boarded a ship heading away from Nineveh. They would have understood how the only way God was going to get Jonah to Nineveh was to have him regurgitated by a big fish onto its shores. Jonah knew that he could not forgive, but that God could. Grudgingly, Jonah approaches Nineveh and gives the shortest sermon in the history of ever. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” You’ll never guess what happened. That’s right. The entire city repented.
I’ve summarized Jonah’s story so that I can talk about the importance of ashes. The King of Nineveh repented by putting on sackcloth and ashes and ordered the entire city – including the animals – to do the same. In the Hebrew Bible, the ritual use of sackcloth and ashes is for repentance. Wearing sackcloth is penitence because the material is very scratchy and it’s uncomfortable to wear, so in that sense it’s like a punishment. The ashes symbolized ruins, so people would sit in ashes as a sign of humility – that the life they had built was coming down around them – that even the greatest and the strongest and the very best, are flawed and mortal, and that they, that we, once again, would need to turn toward God.
I love this ritual and the symbolism. The ritual of ashes on Ash Wednesday has a personal meaning for me. The spiritual life for me, began with the pathway to recovery – recovery from alcoholism. At the age of 27 I had, in a way, burned my life to the ground, and sat in those ashes. And from those ashes, I was able to build another life, and over time, I came to realize that I had always been God’s. Whether I am successful, accomplishing anything, achieving my goals, or whether I’m making mistakes and bad decisions or disappointing people, what might be called sin – I am God’s, I belong. We belong.
Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber said this in one of her Ash Wednesday sermons: “So, to me, there is actually great hope in Ash Wednesday, a great hope in admitting my mortality and my brokenness because then I finally lay aside my sin management program long enough to allow God to be God for me. Which is all any of us really need when it comes down to it.
And this God of which I speak is nothing if not a God of hope and promise. Here’s the image I have of Ash Wednesday: If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and us not knowing what the distance is between the two, well then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and then held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. With these ashes it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”
There is a beauty and a seriousness in the ritual of the ashes. Beauty, because the ashes remind us from where we came, whose we are, and to where we will return. Serious, because the ashes remind us from where we came, whose we are, and to where we will return. Ash Wednesday is about how we belong to God and are connected to each other through God’s own creative power and through the dust of stars. We belong.
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