Since it’s still pretty cold outside, the snow that graced our roads and sidewalks and driveways has not yet disappeared. To add insult to injury, in a city where driving is not a particularly pleasurable experience anyway, there have been many “quick trips to …” that have turned instead into long, drawn-out nightmares.
The other day on one of these quick-trips-which-turned-out-to-be-not-very-quick, I was sitting in my van waiting (and waiting) for my turn at a busy intersection. A friend was riding with me, and he mentioned the piles and piles of snow stacked up along the sides of the roads, blocking lanes and obstructing traffic.
It didn’t even look like snow anymore — it was not powdery or fluffy, and it most certainly was not white. “Gray” would have been a better descriptive word, although in some places it was coated with a thick, dark grime — almost black. My friend commented: “You know, that dirt is there in the air and on the roads all the time. It takes a big snowfall like this, though, until we can see it.”
I remembered that comment as I was reflecting on the start of Lent. Lent began on Ash Wednesday, and here at Calvary we held services that included the imposition of ashes. I grew up in a church context that did not recognize or mark Ash Wednesday, so celebrating the day on the Christian calendar has always seemed a little strange to me.
In my memory the closest thing to ashes on my forehead was the Wordless Book song I sang in Bible school every year:
My heart was black with sin,
Until the Savior came in.
His precious blood I know,
Will wash me whiter than snow …
Given my inexperience with Ash Wednesday coupled with my extensive Bible-school training, I’ve always (naturally) assumed the imposition of ashes was a public expression of the secret blackness of my heart. Confronted with the opportunity to mark Ash Wednesday as an adult a few years ago, I found that this association distressed me.
Frankly, I didn’t want a smudgy cross on my forehead on Wednesday or any other day. In addition to making me look like I forgot to wash my face, I felt is was just another physical reminder of the Bible-school blackness of my heart.
But this year Ash Wednesday had new meaning for me. Not unlike many other experiences in my practice of faith, it turns out the impression I got in Bible school might not have been entirely accurate. In my case it took 40 years of living, an epic snowstorm, and a frustrating ride in the van to rediscover a meaningful Ash Wednesday.
I finally realized: We humans have a tendency to spend a whole lot of time constructing our lives with the shiny, careful veneer of perfection. But the thing is, everybody’s human. All of us crack, and cry, and crumble, and hurt — and when we do, the dust of our humanness can get all over everything.
Ash Wednesday is a chance to let out a deep breath, sit right down in the middle of the cloud of dust that is our humanity, and just be fully human — people who, even when we look as shiny as can be, still desperately need God.
That smeared cross of black ashes is there to help us remember that, no matter how successful or intelligent or accomplished or happy or educated or holy or beautiful or rich or wonderful we like to think we are, all of it is always covered with that human layer of dust. And, just like my friend commented about the piles of dirty snow on the roadside, the truth is that the dust of our humanity is there all the time — not only on Ash Wednesday.
Sometimes it just takes a smudged cross on our foreheads for us to see it.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. … But the steadfast love of the LORD endures forever. Amen.
AMY BUTLER is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. You can also read her thoughts regularly on her blog, Talk With the Preacher.