Some thoughts on Ash Wednesday:
This narrative of the union of man and the earth is played out liturgically on Ash Wednesday. It is a quick, repetitive moment of ritual: ashes, the motion of a cross, and a few words. Yet by it, we are placed directly into the foundational narrative of humanity. This imposition of ashes is not pedagogical. On the first day of Lent, we are not “told” about creation or taught the doctrinal import of the fall or the story of Cain. In fact, the appointed readings for the day ignore the opening chapters of the Jewish Bible. What Ash Wednesday does is place us "in" the story. We become actors in the narrative. The story happens to us in a visceral, tactile way.
At that moment, all our modern pretensions are cast off. We lose our pretend advancement and our clean, digital disconnection from things dirty and primeval. We are thrust once more to the soil. We do not sit in the pew learning ancient Palestinian stories. We are physically marked with ashes. Words are spoken over our bodies. We are addressed personally and individually. We become Adam and Eve and Cain and the recipients of the flood and what is true about us, about our bodies, our relationship to our maker, is tossed out into the open.
In those few seconds we live out the primordial series of events that defines us even now. We remember our creation from the dirt, that our bodies are real and tangible and we remember with it that the Lord breathed His Spirit into us and that we are formed by his hand. Even more we remember the awful mortality that comes. We will return to the dust. We die. We sin. We are Adam and Eve. We are married to the earth. We cannot escape the ground upon which we walk. That earth gives birth to us, we plant our seed in her, are fed by her. And she will greedily consume our flesh someday soon. No matter how far we have supposedly progressed, we are dirt.
The last piece of Old Testament story that Ash Wednesdays thrusts us into as participants is the most drastic: the flood. There is, of course, no water in the Ash Wednesday ceremony just muddy splotches on wrinkled foreheads. But the flood is there in all its destructive and saving fury. It appears in the shape of that protective Cainite mark placed upon us: a cross. It is here where we stand on the earth and feel the awful deluge of God’s anger over our disobedience, that the imagination of our hearts is only evil all the time. On Ash Wednesday we stand on the earth that God thrashed and pummeled with water: it is the same earth that the cross of Jesus Christ was planted in. The ground from which Adam was formed, the ground which was cursed by sin, the ground which drank the blood of Cain’s brother, the ground which soaked up the furious deluge is now the ground that bears the weight of the Son of God, is splashed with his divine blood and waits to receive his lifeless body.
On Ash Wednesday we are marked with that cross, and it is a cross of baptism. That we are marked with the cross of Christ in our baptism and that we are so marked on the day of ashes and death and sin and shame is no accident. For that cruciform sign of death and the words of burial that accompany it are only washed away by the waters of baptism which is in turn nothing else than the cross of Christ. We are baptized into his death. With the baptismal flood waters we go down into that earth with Christ. The waters bury us in the ground with Him. It is there finally that death loses its grip on us. Christ is the seed planted in the earth that the greedy grave cannot digest. Christ is planted as seed and the earth must do what God intended it to do before the fall, before the curse, before Abel’s blood stained it. It must give birth to life. It must feed Gods children. It must give birth to the tree of life, with healing fruit for humanity.