March 1st, 2011

I often say Ash Wednesday is my favorite liturgical holiday.

I discovered the wonder and beauty of high-church worship in college. Admittedly, this took several months of steady attendance at an Episcopal church, given that I grew up Disciples of Christ, a notoriously anti-creedal denomination.

Once involved in that Episcopal congregation, I observed Lent for the first time, beginning with that most unusual of high holy days, Ash Wednesday. I decided then and there that it was my favorite religious holiday." Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," the priest intoned, marking an ashen cross on my forehead. While most ash impositions I've seen through the years end up looking like a smudgy thumbprint on the forehead, mine was a well-defined Greek cross an inch-and-a-half tall and wide. I wore it proudly, feeling a profound and silent connection with others I saw who had received ashes that day, knowing that they too embraced this ritual too often forgotten in most Protestant traditions.

I find the Ash Wednesday liturgy so meaningful because of those words spoken as the ashes are imposed: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Combine that with the overall message of solemnity and repentance preached that day, and one will be reminded of the brevity of life, and the weight one's relationship with God carries, given the fleeting and relatively (to the "great scheme of things") insignificant nature of our earthly existence.

While many may take issue with my assertion that our lives are insignificant, let me explain that I cling to that thought out of horror that the burdens of stress, depression, and feelings of inadequacy may really matter in the long run. Rather, I cling to the hope that those things don't really matter, and that my petty human worries will, at the end of my days, seem like specks of dust in the vast expanse of infinite time and space. The writer of Ecclesiastes seems to understand this line of thinking, asserting "Everything is hevel." "Everything is meaningless," some English translations say it, but a more accurate translation is vapor, vanity, or dust. Everything is vapor. All we are is dust in the wind, as the song says.

I remember a night in college, during the semester I took Astronomy. Having learned just how vast the universe is, and how small even our whole galaxy is in comparison to all of space, I looked up at the sky with a new perspective. Distressed over whatever guy was causing me trouble at the time, I cried out to God, and yet at the same time thought, "Why should my problems matter? If the Milky Way is but a speck, how small is Earth, and how much smaller is my own aching heart?" Yet, in the midst of that existential realization, I believed that God still cared, no matter how small I am. It was I who needed to see my problems as but a speck.

I, for one, feel lucky to be dust.

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