Last year on Ash Wednesday, as we visited after the service, the ash and oil still fresh on our foreheads, someone said to me, “I’ve always liked Ash Wednesday, but I don’t know why. There’s something darkly beautiful about it.”
And that phrase, darkly beautiful, stuck with me – all through last year’s Lent season, through Easter, through the summer and fall of ordinary time, through Advent and Christmas and the light of Epiphany, until we find ourselves again faced with the beginning of Lent and this darkly beautiful ritual of marking ourselves with ashes.
It’s dark – not just because we are gathered here in the evening, in the dark of winter that very much still has its hold on us – but dark because this ritual reminds us full on that we are mortal, that we are going to die, that life is short and precious and fragile, that we are broken and sinful and that despite all our best intentions, we have turned away from God. This darkly beautiful tradition reminds us that being human, in these created, incarnate bodies of ours, means that we will sin, and that we will die.
A few weeks ago, there was an ad that aired during the Super Bowl that seemed to catch everybody’s attention. Not the one with the horse and the puppy, though that was cute… this was one for an insurance company that reminded us – through horrifyingly frightening images – of the wide variety of ways our children could possibly perish in preventable accidents in our homes.
The commercial made us squirm, I think, not just because it was an unexpectedly morbid moment in an evening that is mostly centered around nacho chips and touchdowns, and not even because it made us come face to face with the hard reality that life can be so quickly taken away — most of us who have ever loved someone know that reality all too well and need no further reminder.
But also, and more complicatedly, this commercial – and let us not forget that this company paid a small fortune for us to squirm like this — made us squirm because it implied that somehow we could be immune to the effects of these terrible tragedies if we would just buy the right insurance plan.
As if there is any sort of insurance that will ultimately protect us and the ones we love from the truth that from dust we are made and to dust we will return.
But that, in the end, is the beautiful part of this darkly beautiful tradition: from dust we are made and to dust we will return — this is a scientific fact, I heard someone point out this week, as well as a spiritual one. In it we find the hope of our faith.
See, we who put our trust in the everlasting promises of God know that no insurance plan will ultimately protect us, from sin or from death. We will turn away from God and we will die. We are mortal, human beings.
No, insurance won’t help.
Only the assurance of God’s grace will do.
Only the assurance that we who are made of dust were in fact made by God, beloved by God, forgiven by God — and will, in the end, return to dust and return to God — only that assurance can save us.
When the flood waters recede after forty days of rain – God puts a rainbow in the sky to assure the people of God’s grace.
When the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness for forty years – God sends manna from heaven to sustain them and assure them of God’s grace.
When Jesus retreats to the wilderness for forty days to fast, God’s grace sustains him until his work with the people can begin.
The beginning of this story is dust – and we know the end of the story: it is dust, and it is grace.
And so we enter this season, these forty days, with the dark reminders of what it means to be human, and with the beautiful grace that God is always with us and waiting for us to return.