The Journey Begins: “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust”
The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. In the Christian tradition, Ash Wednesday is the day when we are supposed to remember our mortality and the need for reconciliation with God. What we are reminded of on this day is represented with the solemn words we say while drawing a cross on the forehead: “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.” It is a common mistake to think that this phrase originated from a Bible verse, but the exact expression came from the Book of Common Prayer, published in England in 1549. More exactly, it came from the “The Order for the Burial of the Dead” in this book. Therefore, this phrase is to be said in a funeral to remind us that we are but mortal.
So, why do we say these humbling words on Ash Wednesday as we embark on our Lenten journey? Don’t we need more encouraging words to kick us off with this 40-day intense journey? Wouldn’t it be better to start our journey with a Bible verse like “I can do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:13)”? Wouldn’t it be more proper to say the phrase at the end of the journey rather than in the beginning? Why are we reminded of our mortality and hence, our limitations, even before we start our journey?
I believe it is because the whole point of this journey is not about achieving something great that we can boast to the whole world, but about finding something sacred in us, around us, and among us. What kind of journey is our Lenten journey? It is certainly not like a tour in a foreign land. It is not about checking out landmarks, tasting exotic foods, and meeting new people. Instead, it’s about checking on ourselves, tasting the bitterness of our innate desires, and finding our true selves. This journey is unlike a short-term mission trip: we don’t really have clear missions to fulfill, tasks to do, or others to help. It is about looking into myself, taking as much time as needed to understand who I am and what I am called to do at this moment of my life journey. In this journey, we don’t need to feel pressure or have ambition to find a “new land.” Rather, our journey is to focus on the most familiar things in us, around us, and among us with the hope that at the end of this journey, we shall have a better understanding of ourselves and the people around us. Therefore, this journey is like a pilgrimage. In a sense, we go back to where it all started with the hope to encounter with something holy there. It is to unwind from vicious life circles, untangle complicated relationships, and unlearn the worldly teachings on successful life so that we may live a little bit more meaningful life as Christians while we are here on earth. That is why we begin this journey with the humbling words, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” We begin this journey knowing that there will be no victory or glory at the end. Everyday, we will humbly walk with God, having the courage to believe that our journey itself is meaningful even though we already know that at the end of this journey, we might again turn into ashes and dust.
I am not underestimating the huge celebration of the resurrection on Easter Day at the end of this Lenten journey. In our Christian tradition, we have been celebrating Easter as the day when Death is defeated by the power of Love. That’s our inspiration and aspiration that motivates us to move forward despite life’s challenges. However, I would warn us not to fall into the temptation of triumphalism. It means valuing the victory at the end over all the other things we do and find in the process. I hope that what motivates us to have this Lenten journey is not the belief that “if we endure this unpleasant journey, there will be a triumphant ending.” Instead, we will be able to find treasures here and there on the road and have moments of gratitude for the grace we experience along the way. Furthermore, I hope that we practice our piety and strive for spiritual maturity to the extent of being grateful for the journey itself, even if what we find are only ashes and dust. Yes, they remind us of our own mortality and limitations. Isn’t that exactly why this journey will be meaningful? We start from nothing, and whatever we find on the way will be a blessing.
For the next seven weeks of the journey, reflecting on the lectionary texts this year, I’d like to invite you to especially reflect on your innate desires, hence the title, The Heart’s Desire. In the first week, we will think about where and how we store up our treasures. Where are your desires directed? Where do you find treasures, and where do you store them in your life journey? In the second week, we will reflect on Jesus’ forty days of journey in the wilderness and talk about his temptations. What kind of temptations do you need to resist to go on this journey? What kind of desires you need to tame to live a more meaningful life? During the third week, we will reflect on our desire for security based on the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. Peter, who was overwhelmed by the mountaintop experience, wanted to stay there. Is there something wrong with our desire to be stable when life is just too precarious and unpredictable? The fourth week will be about looking into our thirst. Based on the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, we will think about what we thirst for and if it is really worthy of our thirst. In the fifth week, based on the story of a blind man who was healed by Jesus, we are going to reflect on what we desire to see. Which of these three is most disgusting from your perspective: saliva, mud, and a sinner? Why is so? What do you want to see and what you don’t want to see on your life journey? In the sixth week, we will focus on the shortest verse in the whole bible: “Jesus wept.” How often do you cry for others? How do you deal with your desire to weep when you see brokenness of this world? In the final week, during this Holy Week, we will spend some time trying to understand the heart of Jesus when he was entering Jerusalem. Did he know that the fanatic crowd who were shouting “Hosanna” was going to turn against him in a few days? What did he want from them? What would be Jesus’ desire for us? In the concluding chapter, as we prepare for Easter, I will invite us again to reflect on the meaning of “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.” What kind of ashes and dust do you find at the end of this journey? What is burnt down during the journey? What is left?
I learned from Rev. Gary Barbaree that the word “journey” and “journal” came from the same Latin word, diurnum,which means “daily.” So our journey or journal meant to be continued daily. For me, the hardest thing to do is to do something everyday. I like spontaneous decisions and I hate repetitive works. I’m generally good at improvising things and bad at planning things ahead of time. It will be a very challenging exercise for me to force myself to sit down in front of my computer to read, reflect, and write something for an hour everyday. However, this year I decided to try this during the Season of Lent. This will be a spiritual practice for me. And I hope that when I share these reflections with you, you may find them helpful for your own spiritual journey everyday. I wonder what your journey would be like. Whatever you decide to do, I hope and pray that you will have a meaningful and pleasant daily journey during the season of Lent this year. Perhaps this daily effort may just turn into ashes and dust. However, I just hope that at the end of this journey when all these ashes and dust blown away, there will be a mark left on me that says I am a follower of Jesus Christ.
Do you think it’s helpful to be reminded of your mortality for your life journey? Why or why not? Can there be anything positive about thinking of your own death?
Is there something you’d like to give up for your Lenten journey this year? What is it and why did you decide to do so?
What do you expect to encounter at the end of this year’s Lenten journey.