Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, we will gather to be marked with ashes and remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. The gospel for Ash Wednesday is Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.
Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I remember listening to a gentleman talk about his life. He told me about the success of his business, the disappointment in his marriage, that his last child has moved out, and that he was about to turn 50 years old. He said, “This isn’t what I thought my life would be like when I turned 50. I’m just not sure where my place is anymore.”
His question has stuck with me. “Where is my place?” It is the kind of question that gets asked over and over. It seems to accompany all the significant movements and changes in our lives.
A spouse dies or a relationship ends and the question is, “Now that I’m not a couple where is my place?” For some retirement or unemployment causes us to ask the question. At some point our bodies get tired, old, or sick. And we ask, “Where is my place in a society that emphasizes youth, beauty, health, and performance?” With the joy and celebration of marriage or children come new roles and responsibilities as a spouse or a parent. And we ask, “Where is my place in these new relationships?” Sometimes we even describe our spiritual or emotional lives by saying “I’m in a bad place right now.” We seem to intuitively know that there is another place, a better place. Regardless of how they come about the changes of life, it seems, leave us wondering, “Where is my place in life?”
I have thought a lot about this question. I have thought about it mostly in the context of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. I have begun to realize that the Church answers this question. The Church answers “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Today the Church reminds us of our place. I did not say that the Church puts us in our place. To remember that we are dust is not a negative, not a put down. It is not an insult or a judgment. It means we look at the reality of who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. The Church is not saying remember that you are nothing but dirt. Instead we are being asked to remember that our life begins and ends in God. We are to recall that God scooped together handfuls of sacred dust and breathed God’s own life into the dust. He breathed us into existence. God has chosen us to be the containers of His divine breath, His divine life.
As I look at my own life and listen to the stories of others I realize that most of us have at some point found our place in life based on what others say to us, based on what others think about us, based on others expectations for us, based on the presence or absence of someone else in our life. We tend to forget, ignore, and sometimes even deny our dustness. And when we do, we end up practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them. Not because we are bad. But because we have lost our place in life. Perhaps we never even knew we had a place. So we spend our lives trying to create a place for ourselves. We live our lives on the outside. Our identity and relationships become externalized. Other people become objects. Separation and disintegration characterize our existence. And pretty soon everything seems out of place.
Jesus recognizes how easily we can lose our place. He is warning us about living our lives on the outside in order to be seen by others. The risk is that we will turn life more and more into an activity to be seen, judged, even admired by others. When that happens our place in life changes according to the opinions or life of someone other than our Creator and Savior.
In today’s gospel Jesus is calling us to the interior life. He is asking us to live life from the inside out. He is asking us to move from the outer world to the inner world. He is asking us to let go of living our lives before others in order to be seen by them. That letting go is our Lenten discipline.
Secret alms, secret prayer, secret fasting are the way we begin to break our dependence on others. It is not so much about how we give alms, how we pray, or how we fast. It is about where, location. When we move into that secret place with God we no longer depend on others to give us our identity. We no longer depend on others to give us our place in life. In that secret place we remember that we are dust. We begin to see that our identity, who we are, is who we are in God.
Despite the disappointments in our marriage, the success of our business, the children who grow up and move away, the frailty of our bodies, the pain of our losses, the changes and chances of life, the fear of the unknown – we are, we always have been, and we always will be the beloved sons and daughters of God.
Today the Church invites us to the observance of a holy Lent by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. This is the journey back to our dustness. These are the practices that point us to that secret place where God resides.
“To dust you shall return” is not God’s threat or punishment. And it is not simply a statement about bodily decay after death. It is a statement of God’s faithfulness to us. It is a statement of God’s love and desire for us. It is the promise of resurrected life.
So when you leave here do not wash off the ashes. Rub them in. Rub them deep into your being. They are your place in life.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”