I can totally understand our ancestors’ worship of the sun. Honestly, I can! I mean just put yourself in the place of your pre-scientific great, great, great, great, great, great ……. grandparents and the way they viewed the sun. It illuminated their days, and when it disappeared at night they were filled with a sense of dread from hidden predators of both the animal and spiritual kind. The sun gave life and sustained life. It made their crops grow as well as every other living creature. The sun could also take life. Too much of the sun brought drought, starvation and death. They tracked the sun and stars (other suns) and fashioned their calendars and the keeping of time around the movement of these heavenly bodies. There was a constancy in the sun. Every day the sun rose and set. Every year the sun faded and returned. There was rhythm. The sun faithfully moved across the sky, a type of cosmic covenant.
We’re not so different from our distant relatives. Sure, we don’t worship the sun with sacrifices. You don’t see the masses bowing down to Sun Gods like Ra or Apollo. Yet we still show a tremendous amount of devotion to the sun. Look at our obsession with the weather. Its prognosticators are local and national celebrities, whipping us into near religious fervour over the upcoming weather. There are TV channels devoted exclusively to the weather and apps that give us 24/7 access to predictions on the weather – all so we can plan our lives around how much sun there will be. Look at what happens on a sunny day, especially after a few days of bad weather. Everyone comes out to bask in the sun. We now know that our moods are tied to the sun or lack thereof. Yes, we have evolved beyond the superstitions of our ancestors but we still, like them, hold the sun, the light, with much devotion. Like them we still depend on the light of the sun for our very existence.
Even our Lenten season is rooted in the sun. The slight tilt of the earth back on its axis as it rotates around the sun leads to longer days and more light. New life is just around the corner. Lent is the marking of the lengthening of days, the return of the light. The light that will fully return at the end of our Lenten journey.
Lent reminds us of our place in this cosmic covenant of light. Lent reminds us that we are not the light; we are but dust. We are the dust of stars, billions of years old, brought to life on this tiny planet by the light of our sun.
Scripture, too, reminds us of our part in the story of creation. God creates us out of dust, blessing us with divine breath. We are awakened for just a flickering moment in the grand scheme of things, created to take part in the work of creating and re-creating, of love and life. God enters into covenant with humanity, promising to be faithful always. The Hebrew word for this is hesed, the most common word and description of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. God shines the light of hesed, covenant love and faithfulness, on us. In return God asks us to do the same in the world, reflecting God’s love back out into the world.
The prophet Joel is reminding the Hebrew people of this covenant relationship. He calls them to covenant renewal via fasting and prayer. It’s a type of sacred reboot back into right covenant relationship with God and each other. “Change your heart and not your clothes” he calls. Do not think that your religious observances absolve you from your responsibility to God and to your sisters and brothers, to the alien, the widow and the orphan.
The gospel from Matthew also warns about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The hypocrisy that pays fine detail to the rituals and the law, but ignores what is important to God, which is a broken and contrite heart. Even the public display of the imposition of ashes must be tempered by Matthew’s warnings about making a performance out of our piety. The power of our religious symbols lies not in the symbols themselves, but in the grace, mercy and love to which they point. The ashes we use today point to a deeper truth.
For us Christians this grace, mercy and love is made flesh in Jesus. In his life lived, and in his broken body and spilled blood, we see the God who dwells in light inaccessible. In him the light becomes human, hesed becomes flesh and bone and dies a human death. But not even death can fully hinder the light. There is no ending to love. The light always returns. The ashes remind us of our frailty and brokenness. A frailty that God himself assumes in the incarnation. A brokenness that God seeks to heal and redeem. Far from being a symbol of death, the ashes become a symbol of redemption. From the light comes dust and from dust comes the light of salvation.
Lent then is a call for us to turn back to the light, what in religious language we call repentance. It’s 40 days of preparation and self-reflection as we wait for the light. This light is now only a faint glimmer, but soon its full glory will be revealed. Even now its warmth draws us toward it, melting away the frozen bleakness of our hearts. Remember you are dust, star dust, and to that same dust we will all surely return. But in the light of God’s love, the risen son, humans (literally from the dirt) truly live. So as the light returns to us, let us turn toward the light and let us keep a holy Lent.
In the name of the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forevermore. Amen.
This song from Alana Levandowski beautifully compliments what I’ve written here. The song is called When Love Meets Dust and was recorded specifically for the rare occasion of Ash Wednesday falling on Valentine’s Day this year