I typically don't think much about ashes except for this day every year: Ash Wednesday. Tonight, I will participate in a strange, ancient ritual in which I'll smear some ashes in the shape of a cross on peoples' foreheads and say something like, "Turn from your sins and follow Jesus" or "Remember you are dust and to dust you will return." Tonight, I'll leave the church marked by ashes on my head and hands.
The more I think about it, however, I think we could use some more ashes in our lives. Traditionally, ashes have been a sign of penitence, humility, and mourning- although we don't have much use for these virtues in our day. Much of the Christianity I encounter has very little penitence, humility, and mourning. We come in contact with them about as often as we do ashes.
Yet, Jesus was acutely aware of the human propensity to see other peoples' sins so very clearly while being blind to one's own. We see the splinter in other people's eyes while being blind to the 2x4 growing from our own. We all have an amazing capacity to delude ourselves. After all, the most difficult thing for my two eyes to see is my own face. This is why we judge other people by their worst actions and ourselves by our best motivations. This is true from a religious perspective as well. We judge other religions by their worst adherents and our own by our highest exemplars. The President learned this lesson the hard way last week with the fallout from the National Prayer Breakfast. We don't want to think about our own sins. Some people said it was because he was bringing up ancient history (although some of it wasn't very ancient), but I suggest that the fallout was because we want to believe in the superiority of our religion over others. This is the mindset that keeps fires of conflict raging, and some people's identity stems solely from their conflicts. They need a them in order to have an us. These people have little use for contrition, introspection and confession because these virtues make for poor ammunition in the culture and religious wars. We all want a religion that inflates our pride rather than one that challenges our ego. We don't want to confess our sins because that would demand we actually see them!
Likewise, we live in an age in which humility is hardly a virtue. We rarely hear anyone say that they don't have all the answers. In fact, one of the most threatening and dangerous things one can say in our religious milieu is, "I don't know," as if uncertainty is equated with unbelief. We demonize anyone who dares to disagree with us on any issue. Furthermore, we are frequently shocked that someone does in fact disagree with us because our news sources insulate us from anyone and everyone with a diverging viewpoint. We are an age marked by pride and arrogance. Rarely does anyone change their mind about anything of importance, and any new thought is quickly banished to the hinterland of heresy. Oftentimes, our religious practices only serve to concretize our egos and confirm us in our beliefs. And of course, the greatest pleasure of all is when we discover the Bible (and thereby God) shares our views! Who needs repentance or humility when one is certain God sees it the same way we do?
And there doesn't seem to be much mourning in our Christianity either. Worship has become little more than therapy for the saints, an emotional pep rally to charge the troops. But when was the last time you confessed your sins before God in worship? When was the last time your congregation intentionally made time and space for the broken people in the world or acknowledged the very real brokenness in our own lives? When was the last time you experienced silence in worship, listening for that still, small voice of God? When was the last time you left worship having experienced some visceral expression of pain? Jesus said "Blessed are those who mourn," but you wouldn't know it from much Christian worship.
What if ashes are the antidote to this expression of faith? I've heard that ashes are vital and essential for some life on this planet. Forest fires often clear out the underbrush of the forests in the Great Northwest so that the giant redwoods have room enough to grow. Some types of seeds only open due to the intense temperatures of fire. Some weeds are only eradicated by fire. The ashes contain the necessary nutrients for the soil, ready for decomposition. In this way, the ashes are symbols of newness, carrying God's tomorrow in their very presence. The ashes are the means by which the future arrives.
Perhaps, we could all take this season of Lent to allow the ashes to have their way with us. Perhaps we could- in a spirit of introspection- take an honest look at our own lives. Perhaps we could tame our pride, name all the other gods that have diverted our attention and claimed our allegiance, and identify the fear and ignorance which dehumanizes us and others. Perhaps we could spend some time at the depths of our being, so that we can know the things that can't be known by thinking, but only by experiencing. Perhaps we could make friends with someone who is other. Perhaps we could remember our own frailty, so that we can easily distinguish between serving God and being God. Perhaps we could remind ourselves that we now see through a glass darkly, so we dare not confuse God's Truth with our truths. This is why- though faith, hope, and love remain- the greatest of these is love.
What would rise from those ashes would be a version of Christianity that is much more humble, gracious, and compassionate. What would rise from those ashes would be a Christianity much more like Christ.
May it be so with us.