Ashes have been used as a symbol for repentance long before the church adopted the practice to start Lent and long before Christ spent forty years in the dessert.
Prophets, kings, and indeed whole communities use the symbol in the Old Testament to denote sorrow and supplication for forgiveness.
In Christianity, the practice first started as a way of reincorporating excommunicated Christians back into their communities.
In a sense, ashes capture a sentiment found throughout the bible. “What is your life,” James writes in his epistle, “You are mist that appears only for a little while and vanishes.”
These little carbon molecules are the same substance that make up our bodies.
The fine dust is about as broken down as it gets.
It doesn’t get any simpler than ashes.
We were dust, we are dust, we will be dust again.
I remember standing over a vast overlook spanning at least a mile across.
This was not the Grand Canyon or even the Loess Hills.
It was much homelier.
What I surveyed was the Black Hawk County landfill.
All of the trash from a largish Iowa metro area all converged into this pit.
It was gathered under the assumption that it would one day return to the form from which it came: carbon, dust, earth, humus.
It was hard to believe that it could or would.
Our lived is experience in all consuming.
It is all we know.
We cannot remember our beginning and we avoid thinking about our end.
Just as it can be hard to imagine that the lives we are now living will someday stop, it is necessary to always keep that reality in mind.
We are but mist.
Our bodies will return to the dust from which God called us into being.
We start Lent from this reality.
Repentance, true amendment of life, must start from the humility that no matter how grand a life we strive to live, we will return to the dirt.
Accepting this helps us prioritize.
Accepting our death helps us live with urgency and purpose.
It simplifies things.
After confronting the County landfill Sara and I decided that rather than being complicit in filling it up, we would try an in home experiment.
We adopted some red composting worms.
We shredded our newspaper, through in our bananas, coffee grounds, and egg shells, added a little dirt and introduced the worms to their new home.
Hypothetically, the worms would take care of about a pound of waste a day.
So, we let the worms work.
As they set about their work in the dark, a funny thing happened.
All of the waste in our lives was transformed into something new.
After a couple of weeks, we opened our little worm dwelling and found two things.
First, the darkest and most fertile soil either of us had ever seen.
And from that black earth sprung a bright green shoot from a seed accidentally forgotten.
The dirt was so fertile I suspect if we had dropped in a hammer, after a few months we would find a hammer tree growing.
From pure dirt came new life.
From the humility of Ash Wednesday, from this humus making day, we might find something unexpected.
In the clarity gained in accepting our mortality, and the casting off of sinful clutter, maybe this Lent God, the one who blew life into dust and made us,
will have again have fresh soil to grow something surprising and new in you.