There are many aspects of my youth director job that fall under the “other duties as assigned” category. Last night that included chasing after a three-year-old who decided she didn’t want “dirt” on her face during the imposition of ashes and decided instead to sprint (with the gusto only 3-year-olds can manage) out of the sanctuary. I caught up to her before she made it too far, and hand in hand, we slowly meandered back toward the sanctuary find her dad and little brother. The scene was comical, but to be honest, I totally get it. My memories of Ash Wednesday growing up are not the most positive either. As a particularly self-conscious child to begin with, the thought of having an ashy cross smeared across my forehead was less than appealing. And, I mean who wants to sit around and talk about death and be told that all we are is dust? Not a 7-year-old Alex, that’s for sure.
What I missed (among many other really awesome theological concepts that slightly more grown-up Alex can nerd out about all day) was that the death we talk about on Ash Wednesday isn’t an all-conclusive, hopeless, final kind of death. It is a death, that though often painful, brings with it a sense of new life. A death that reminds us of our smallness, our limitedness, and our place in the infinite universe but also a death that is deeply tied to the promise of resurrection and hope. On Ash Wednesday we commemorate a death to our egos and grandiose perceptions of our own abilities and self-justifications and re-center to recognize the reality that our identity is rooted in something bigger and deeper than our individual selves. Ash Wednesday is affirmation that our identity lies in Christ crucified and risen, a humbling and life-giving reality.
Approximately three weeks ago, I stepped off a tour bus in the desert of the West Bank and trekked with my fellow seminarians down to the bank of the Jordan River. It had been an emotionally intense week to say the least. After conversations with Israeli citizens, Palestinian refugees, peace workers, and religious leaders, my brain was on overload. I was feeling entirely overwhelmed with the complexity and apparent hopelessness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was beginning to see the plethora of injustices happening in my own country under a new, increasingly disturbing light, and more than ever, I was feeling the weight of my own privilege and the recognition of my place in the world among the systems that serve me while simultaneously crushing my neighbors. After having spent about a week and a half walking in the footsteps of Jesus, I wondered how I could ever profess to know anything about this God who chose to reveal Godself among the shepherds and peasants, who could most often be found hanging out with those on the outskirts of society, who came “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” (Luke 4:18). I had never been more aware of my place of privilege in the world—privilege coming more often than not at the expense of others. How could Jesus’ message of hope possibly be for me too?
My fellow students and I sat by the water’s edge, soaked in the hot, direct rays of the January sun and tried to wrap our tired minds around the fact that we were actually at the Jordan River. After a moment, we joined together in song and in prayer, letting the simplicity and stillness surround us. We then listened as our professors read to us the story of Jesus’ baptism and allowed the story to unfold before our very eyes among the palm trees, tall yellowish grass, and meandering muddy water. And there, in the middle of the desert, on the banks of what is actually a fairly unimpressive river, we were r
eminded of the promise of God freely given to us in our own baptisms. We were reminded that through death to our own selves, we have been made into a “new creation” as Beloved Children of God, an identity that even the world’s most oppressive, devastating, hopeless systems cannot take away from us.
In his book, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb (current pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem) writes, “We must live with our feet firmly grounded in the reality of this world with its empires, yet, at the same time, be engaged in creating with our own hands a foretaste of the kingdom to come” (127.) As much as I wish it would some days, our identity in Christ does not magically lift us out of the entanglement of the world’s messiness, the systems of violence, oppression and greed. However, it does invite us to live into a new reality: the reality of the inbreaking of God’s abundant life. And it is only by remembering my own insignificance, my own dustiness if you will, that I can see this bigger picture of what it means to be part of a global Body of Christ. A Body that is broken and messy and in many ways dysfunctional, but also a Body that is beautiful and hope-filled and entirely dependent on the One who calls life out of the dust. And it is only by recognizing my own smallness in the midst of this much larger, diverse Body that I can truly begin to live into God’s reality, seeking peace and justice for all people.
Thanks be to God for those little ashy crosses that put life into much needed perspective. Blessings on your Lenten journey!