How could I forget? Doesn’t seem to matter how well-intentioned or hopeful the day, my dusty nature makes itself clear fairly early on. Yet Ash Wednesday’s yearly reminder isn’t only about our sin; it’s about who we are, and about what that means.
Too many surveys tell us that “unaffiliated” adults–those who aren’t necessarily unbelievers but who really have no interest in the Church–have an overwhelming sense of believers as “hypocritical.” Well, we are. And so is everyone else. What I suspect is meant in that charge is that we’re a little too quick to judge others, and a little too slow to get our own house in order. Too quick to label something sin, and to label others sinners.
One of the things that makes me permanently (and perhaps desperately) Lutheran is this tradition’s insistence I am always and perpetually a sinner–and simultaneously a saint, thanks to God’s grace. That’s not a label, it’s a simple reality.
The late Walter Bouman, an American Lutheran theologian, commented that sin isn’t about morality, but about mortality–the recognition that every one of us is going to die. But death doesn’t win. We’ve already died in baptism, and everything else is secondary. So now that you know you’re going to die, and that that’s not the end, what are you free to do? How will you “sin boldly” for the sake of the world God created, and the people God loves?
That’s the message of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent. “Remember that you are dust.” That your body and all the stuff you cling to so tightly will eventually return to the earth. The dying part is all taken care of. What will the living be about? How will these forty days of discipline help us overcome our love for so much that is dust, and set us free to live whole and holy lives–Easter lives? If we could communicate that more boldly and broadly, the world would hear good news, and might see beyond the excuse of hypocrisy to the reality of grace.
You and I are dust. And that is good news, on Ash Wednesday and always.