As I work through my winter reading list, (mostly Kirkpatrick Sale and Wendell Berry, with an occasional dip into Madeleine L'Engle), I've been thinking a lot about dirt--and angels.
Ancient stories are full of people freaked out by angels, terrified to come into close proximity with The Light & Power of the Divine. Today, in this hyper-tech age, we seem more likely to reach for, grasp at, and embrace anything that hints at God-like power. Our cities are now so bright they drown out the stars people used to regard with awe.
So... it seems we have the opposite problem of the ancients. We are not frightened by divinity. Instead, we are completely freaked out by dirt. We cringe at the "antiquated" language of "ashes to ashes and dust to dust" because we really can't bear to acknowledge our proximity to decaying matter. We really can't handle being that intimate with earth.
Tonight, I will celebrate Ash Wednesday. For those unfamiliar with this ritual, the dry and brittle palm fronds saved from last year's Palm Sunday are saved and burned into ashes, then mixed with water or oil. In a quiet, meditative service, often after nightfall, we pray together, perhaps sing together, and receive the "imposition of ashes." A finger or thumb is dipped into the ashes and simple cross is marked on each forehead, usually accompanied by the words, "remember: you are dust, and to dust you will return." We then move out into the night in silent meditation.
Here, then, is my offering: a prayer/poem for this strange, earthy, ancient day:
INVITATION TO ASHES:
We are people of the earth:
the grey blowing grit of it,
the shoe-sucking mud of it,
the rich fertile muck of it.
Our bodies are the soil where dreams decay
and seeds of new hope spring up.
In our bones sleep the ashes of ancestors, stuff of old stars.
We are mountains tumbling into sand.
We are crushed stone.
Wait. Be not resentful, nor ashamed by earthiness:
Even dust rides on the breath of the Spirit.
Even the darkest rot is God's fertile ground.
So, Beloved, come: feel the gentle touch.
Accept the ashes.
Wear the dark smudge with quiet joy:
a holy sign that we are never far from Creation's embrace,
and a promise that not even fire can destroy
the startling traces of God's abiding love.
--copyright MaineCelt 2/22/12