Please welcome today’s guest blogger, my colleague and friend Prof. Chad Engbers. Chad gave this meditation at our Ash Wednesday chapel at Calvin University on February 17. I asked his permission to share it with you. His Ash Wednesday insights, I thought, are worth carrying with us throughout our Lenten journey this year. –Debra Rienstra
There’s a paradox in Psalm 90. The poem begins with the cozy image of God as a dwelling place. Maybe you picture a mansion there. Maybe a Hobbit hole. But some place sturdy and safe that’s been around a long time. The psalm goes on, though, to describe us as dust or dead grass—the kind of stuff you sweep out of the house. So we have a psalm that puts us both inside and outside the house at the same time.
That, in short, is the paradox of the Christian life, isn’t it?
We need both of those verses, the dwelling place and the dust. John Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion by observing that we need to know ourselves to truly know God, and we need to know God to truly know ourselves. The more we understand God’s holiness, the more clearly we see how far short of it we have fallen. And the more we understand our sinful selves, the deeper our understanding of God’s grace.
Ash Wednesday, traditionally, is a time to take a long, hard look at that paradox, but with one eye closed. Today is the day to focus in on the human half, the dusty half. It is a time to temporarily turn a blind eye to the first verse of Psalm 90 and focus on the image of our lives as dust, as dead grass. It’s a time to be still and know that I am not God.
Ash Wednesday is a day to do two things: to repent of our sins and to recognize our mortality.
Now, focusing on our shortcomings and weakness is a counter-cultural move. More than counter-cultural: it’s counter-natural. Human nature gives us all kinds of sneaky maneuvers to escape bad facts about ourselves. We can deny those bad things. We can rationalize them. Perhaps worst of all, we project them on to other people.
We’ve all seen footage of rioters storming the United States Capitol a few weeks ago, and as I watch those angry people being so angry, it just makes me SO ANGRY.
I have some housekeeping to do, don’t I?
It’s so easy to overlook my own anger by condemning it in other people. Repentance is really hard, and it doesn’t feel very good. But make no mistake: repentance is a powerful spiritual technology. Sometimes it’s the only way out.
In the wake of the Capitol riot, one phrase we heard over and over was “This is not who we are.” Ash Wednesday is our opportunity to say, “This is who are. It’s who I am.” Today is our opportunity to reverse the projection, to take the wrong we see so easily in other people and recognize it in ourselves. To take the sins we’ve left unseen, unsaid, and see them. Say them.
I am angry.
I’ve spent a lot more time criticizing than listening.
I’ve spent a lot more time hating than loving.
I’ve been a little bit more of an American than I’ve been a Christian.
I put my own happiness before the well-being of others.
I sometimes think like a racist.
Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to sweep as much of our dust as we can see into the middle of our mental floor, the center of our attention, into a single focal point. Ordinarily, as part of this chapel service, we would literally receive crosses of ash smudged onto our foreheads. Ordinarily, that’s the sign of our one-eyed focus on the human half of our paradox.
I wonder, though, whether this year Ash Wednesday is a little bit different.The repentance part is fairly straightforward—we’ll always have new material for that. It’s perfectly possible to sin even in quarantine. But that second part of Ash Wednesday, acknowledging our mortality, seems almost cruel right now. Over two million dead from the virus. It doesn’t feel like we need a reminder that people die. And the words that seem like necessary correctives in most years, this year, seem like statements of the obvious:
I’m not as strong as I thought.
I’ve put too much trust in unreliable things.
Even when I do everything right, everything still goes wrong.
I’m just. so. tired.
We know those things now, don’t we? We don’t need Ash Wednesday to inscribe those truths on our foreheads; we’ve been facing them all year. In a lot of ways, it feels like last year’s Lent never ended.
A 2014 graduate of Calvin College, Kellan Day, is now an Episcopal priest. A couple of weeks ago, preparing for Ash Wednesday, she wrote this:
I don’t really feel like telling the truth about our mortality or your children’s mortality this year. I don’t want to touch any more ashes—there have already been so many bodies put in the ground. I don’t want to draw crosses on heads… hands shaking. I can almost always get behind confessing and lamenting along with those flustered psalmists, but I don’t know if I can bear to do that alone in a room with empty pews and a tiny red dot glaring at me. The sound echoes without bodies close by.
Amen to that. What a year.
So maybe for this Ash Wednesday, we need to keep both eyes wide open, taking in the whole paradox of our Christian existence, not just the human half. We need the full stack of Psalm 90, taking the verse about being dead grass in full awareness that we dwell in the grace of God.
The thing is, the two halves of our paradox are never really that far away from one another. The other half is always right next door. Let’s return to that dust imagery from Psalm 90. “You turn us back to dust, and say, “turn back, you mortals.” The psalm is here clearly pointing back to the book of Genesis, where God punishes Adam and Eve: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
But it’s kind of a curious curse: “Out of the ground you were taken.” Before telling these humans that they are dry dirt, God reminds them of the incredibly inspiring things that God is able to do with dry dirt—things that God just did in the previous chapter. “Then God formed a human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
So yes, we are dust in the wind. But we are also the wind in the dust.
We are tired, anxious, angry little mortals, dwelling in the sheltering love of the ever-living God.
This year has forced pretty much every person on the planet to confess that they are weaker and much more vulnerable than they thought. We Christians confess that all the time. On purpose. And we do it in church, in our dwelling place, where we can confess with confidence.
Because whether we’re literally in a church building… or not… we dwell in a place where it’s okay to be weak and needy. “A broken and contrite heart God will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). It’s okay. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3). It’s okay.
And as John Calvin observes, confessing our weakness is more than “okay”: knowing ourselves deepens our knowledge of God. Seeing and saying that we are dust is, strangely, a way for us to also feel the breath of God in us.
Ash Wednesday is an opportunity for us to give meaning to the frailty and fatigue of the past year. It’s a framework within which our weakness is more than weakness; it’s a way to discern the true source of our ultimate strength.
Traditionally, the Ash Wednesday cross that is traced on a person’s forehead is layered on top of the earlier cross that is traced on the same forehead… at baptism. Maybe this year, we need both crosses.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Loving God, here we are,
on the doorstep of your dwelling place,
with dusty feet and heavy hearts.
Forgive us our sins.
And breathe into us the clean, fresh spirit of your grace.
Chad Engbers is Professor of English at Calvin University, where he teaches Russian and Renaissance literature. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife, son, cat, dog, and lots of musical instruments.