“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
If you attend a church that observes Ash Wednesday, a pastor or priest will murmur these words to you soon before anointing your head with a cross of ashes. It’s a profound and tangible reminder of the painful reality of sin tainting a beautiful garden (Gen 3), kicking up death into the air, like dust from the newly cursed ground.
But how do you have these symbolic ashes painted onto your forehead if your whole face is already coated in a mix of dust and tears? As I write, I’m looking at the face of a Ukrainian person, already coated in the soot and grief of war; I’m picturing them coming up to a priest who finds nowhere to impose ashes. Instead, the priest wipes away the dust with two swipes, exposing a cross of clean skin. God have mercy. Friends, following Pope Francis’s declaration to all Catholics, let’s make today a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Ukraine.
Lent is the liturgical season when we follow Jesus into the desert. Because it comes at a predictable time every year and has an end date, Lent can be a gracious invitation into a set-apart space of reflection and repentance, free of distraction, clutter, and noise—almost like a retreat. But the desert is there all year, and we often end up there against our wills, forced into an unfamiliar and fearsome place – almost like refugees. We may be driven there by war or tragedy, chronic physical or mental illness, pandemic, deconstructing our faith, bad choices by ourselves or others, or, like Jesus, by the Spirit (Mk 1:12), for reasons that may not be clear to us.
However it is that we find ourselves in the desert now, and however stark, uninviting, and lonely it may be, God is with us here. For though we are dust, we are dust that has been beloved since before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), created for deep friendship with God, marked with Jesus’ cross that reminds us death does not have the final word. And God will use even the peculiarities of the desert to awaken us to his constant nearness, to his longing for intimate friendship with us. Jesus continued to withdraw to the wilderness to be with his father because starkness often puts clarity and stillness within reach, an uninviting space invites us to see our constant dependence on God, and loneliness can give way to contented solitude with God.
Do you find yourself forced into the desert this Lent, by circumstances outside of your control? Even as you suffer, how is Jesus inviting you to enjoy his companionship there, and even to turn your focus toward Jesus’ suffering rather than your own? (To help with this, consider meditating on the Scripture about Jesus’ forty days in the desert through this series of paintings)
Do you find yourself in what feels like a desert of your own making? (You’re not alone.) How is God inviting you to cultivate the ground in faith, trusting that he makes beautiful things out of the dust? (One of today’s lectionary texts is Psalm 51. Consider taking a moment to meditate on the psalm while listening to this sung version)
If you find yourself on the edge of the desert today, not forced in, how is Jesus inviting you to follow him into the desert? Are there ways that Jesus is inviting you to support those who have been forced into the desert? (One of today’s lectionary texts is Isaiah 58. Consider taking a moment to meditate on the text through this song by our friends at Arrabon)