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Stones and Ash

What is the meaning of Ash Wednesday? And what does this famous story about a rabbi with two stones have to tell us?

A reflection for Ash Wednesday Year B. The text was Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, preached for the online combined service of Preston High Street and Chalice Northcote UCA congregations.

There was once a rabbi who used to keep two stones in his pockets. One in his left pocket. One in his right. On one stone was written “you are dust and ashes.” On the other one it said: “the universe was made for you.”

Both of these things are true. We are fragile, mortal, contingent beings, who live in a complex web of relationships. This has always been true; this year it has been a singularly pressing reality as a bat with a sniffle has caused widespread havoc across the whole globe.

And it is also true, a deep claim of our faith, that God has infinite love for each of us – individually and personally, and has called this whole fragile, beautiful, resilient network into existence out of love. The universe is a gift of love, given to each of us.

I think, that is the why today’s reading is advice about fasting. It is saying that fasting, and the whole set of ideas and practices around it, is important. It is also saying that fasting is not the primary thing. Christianity is, at heart, about joy. But it is joy won through, and even within, darkness. That is why our faith works hard to keep the tension between these two truths.

As Christians, we rightly emphasise the second of those truths. We are an Easter people, and the Gospel is good news to the poor. Which is to say: good news to all of us, caught up in this suffering world.

But without an awareness of the tragic dimension of life – of grief, suffering, and guilt – then faith becomes shallow. A simplistic way of living which crumbles at the first sign of trouble. Shallow soil, where the sprouting seeds are scorched by the heat of the sun and wither away.[1]

Or, if faith does not wither away, it can transform into something life denying. Where we take refuge in our supposed certainties in a well-guarded fortress of denial in the mind where any uncomfortable realities are pushed away.

This, then, is part of the richness of meaning of Ash Wednesday. It reminds us, in the most graphic of ways, that we are not the invulnerable, godlike creatures we sometimes feel we are.  We are not, as it turns out, disembodied minds.

The deeply embodied practice of ashing speaks to us in a way which all the good ideas and well formed sermons in the world cannot.

It is powerful because our bodies are not just a way to get us to Bible study. We need good ideas, of course, just like we need the inner confidence that God does, after all, love us. But we need ways to deeply learn to trust in God, in ways which go beyond words.

Ash Wednesday drops us deep into the mystery of our embodied lives. I have a strong desire to say that the Point of Ash Wednesday is this, that, or the other thing. But that, ironically, is to miss the point. Ash Wednesday contains a multitude of meanings, just like a song or a symphony or a dance.

It is an embodied parable. Just like any parable, it is open. Just like any parable, it points us to the reality of us and God.

I’ve been talking up to this point as though we were all primarily tempted to see ourselves as these invulnerable, semi-godlike individuals. As those who have eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and found it very much to our taste. As people primarily tempted by pride.

But for those of us who are wrestling with grief, fear, and loneliness, there is another layer of meaning. Like listening to a beautiful sad song, there is something profoundly right about giving physical expression to our grief. To smear ashes on ourselves, to lament, to call on God – this is something profoundly human. And profoundly Biblical. The psalms are full of lament. 

Ash Wednesday is part of this deep tradition of lament.

Beyond grief and lament, there is another vital layer of meaning: repentance.

Paul says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[2] It’s an uncomfortable truth, but it is the truth. God is in the facts, and so the facts are kind[3]: there is something profoundly comforting to admit to ourselves that we don’t have it all sorted out – that we are damaged people who damage others – and that we are in a community of people who acknowledge that vital truth about ourselves.

It is a complex situation. That’s why I use the theological term “sin” for it, rather than “evil.” We are all of us caught up in unjust systems of exploitation. None of us has clean hands: none of us is immune. None of us are undamaged. In many ways, it is more like a disease than it is like something people consciously do.

But, of course, we also do things which are definitely more within our control.  There seems to me to be two equal and opposite tendencies here. If it is like a disease, then it is a disease which goes to the very core of ourselves.

Some of us are tempted to make ourselves the centre of the story, and reduce everyone else to bit players in the great drama of our lives. Classically, we describe that temptation as pride.

To which Ash Wednesday says: we are, all of us together, dust and ashes.

Some of us are tempted to think that we don’t matter, that God isn’t interested in us, that God doesn’t have a use for us. It’s a temptation close to despair.

To which Ash Wednesday says: the universe is a gift to us.

God loves us and is working to transform us. But God apparently desires our collaboration.

It turns out that repentance isn’t like sending a car to the workshop to get the airbag changed.

Perhaps a better metaphor is getting physiotherapy. Yes, it involves treatment. But if you don’t do the exercises the physio prescribes, you won’t get better.

Of course, once we start thinking about God as a physio, we are tempted to start asking: how much is God’s responsibility? How much is my responsibility? To which the only possible answer to both is: all of it.

Ash Wednesday plunges us deep into the mystery of faith. As Martin Luther said: we are simultaneously righteous and sinner. The mystery of salvation is that God in Godself has done all that is necessary: we just need to trust it, and to live into it. Not to do the bare minimum to escape punishment, but to take advantage of the astonishing opportunity of joining in with God’s self-giving, redemptive work in the world. To live life in all its fullness, to gain that “one thing which is needed.”[4]

We all need to repent. We all need God’s love at work in our lives.

The  God who loves us – who loves you, specifically, individually; the God who knows your name – is enthusiastically at work in us, and through us, to bear much fruit, fruit which will endure.

Each of us has two stones. One says: you are dust and ashes. And the other says: the universe was made for you.

May your embodiment of the Gospel of Jesus Christ become ever fuller and realer, so that, just as we know suffering as he did, we will also know the fullness of the onrushing joy of his Resurrection in our own lives.


Stones on the Hiddensee by drknox on Flickr

[1] Mark 4:1-20

[2] Romans 3:23

[3] I got this idea from a spiritual writer, but I can’t recall who. Any suggestions?

[4] Luke 8:42

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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