The First of a Series of Reflections on
Lent: The Springtime of the Soul
A Biblical Commentary for the First Sunday of Lent
By Rev. David Rommereim
Drawing by Ebitenyefa Baralaye (by permission)
Medium: acrylic and graphite on wood panel
Dimensions (inches): 12 x 1 x 12
New York, 2012
"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
These are the words that many Christian pastors and priests recite while their thumb is dipped into the urn of last years burnt palm branches. They make a smudge of ashes on the forehead of the initiated, uninitiated, curious and beleaguered, believer.
The phrase is linked to Genesis 3.19, "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you (human-adam) return to the ground (adamah), for out of it you were formed; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." That phrase has been adapted for the British Funeral Rite in the Book of Common Prayer. It I also from a title song in 1980 by David Bowie. When ashes are smudged on the frontal lobe of your brain, the cerebral cortex, the prayer sounds like this: Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."
Ash Wednesday is the ritual that begins the liturgical season of spring called, Lent. Lent was developed as a 40 day season of spiritual renewal. It is meant to remember Jesus' 40 day wilderness wandering and remind the people of faith that our ancestors have come through the blessing of the 40 year wanderings after the Prophet Moses followed the G*d event marked by bondage to liberation & freedom (Exodus 1-12).
The 40 days of Lent also take time to train the new initiates, as well as, provide an opportunity for those who have left, or been disciplined, back into the community of belonging. The Lenten study and faith reflection conjoins the people in renewal of belonging at the Easter Vigil, Saturday immediately before Resurrection Sunday.
What is the significance of that the smudge of last year palms on your forehead? Is it to remind you of your brokenness, your isolation, your limited vision, or your sin? Yes, all, or none, of the above.
What I have come to call "the smudge" is less a confrontation with sin than it is a living memory (fortunately) with mortality. And it becomes a confrontation with sin after I have come to realize presumed death.
While I face mortality I am able to giggle at the story of the garden in Genesis 3:7ff. There Adam('ish) is confronted with Eve ('isha) and the slithering snake. Each enjoys the lovely taste of the forbidden fruit. Such a story reminds me of an ability to pretend, to "makealeave" (as my daughter would announce at 3 years old). I makealeave that death will always wait. And in the waiting I hide from the divine event which would let me live more fully.
In the Smudge I am reminded that I do not know what G*d is up to, nor why, Jesus, G*d's Anointed impels me to place a smudge on my cerebral cortex (the sensory lobe of my body). Yet, the act itself is purely honest to Gd. The smudge lets me see G*d in the event itself and through it imagine elsewhere that G*d is living through the reality of mortality (whether humankind or otherwise).
Ash Wednesday is the name we place on the event of the smudge, but it is an event that cannot contain the event itself. That is, "the event is not precisely what happens... but something going on in what happens. (Preaching After God, Derrida, Caputo, and the Language of Postmodern Homiletics, Phil Snider, Cascade Books, 2012, page 85)
Not only am I liberated because of the smudge and the joining prayers, I can see other smudges coming to life all around... where an encounter with the reality of death brings life.
This past week I watched such a smudge while reading some electronic news. I read an article about college students rimming the White House in a public exercise of their democratic responsibility. At 10 am this past Sunday morning, they presented to our president the demand that the death cause by the XL Pipeline will exceed their future. Those 500 college students from 48 states representing dozens of colleges and universities demand a hearing by our government that the death of the climate caused by the mega-conglomerates in the fuel industry have bartered and battered the future of our students and their children. Three hundred and eighty students were arrested in civil protest. Their message was clear and precise: If you are not going to protect our generation from climate catastrophe and ruin the future of our planet, we will!
They put their lives on the line and offered an imaginative smudge remembering the mortality caused by bad, greedy, selfish, business. The smudge represented the fact that we are living in the reality of a climate that has less and less chances to raise a family of humankind. Earth, as we know it, is facing its own death caused by unwieldy carbon footprints and ozone depletion.
If that wasn't enough to let me imagine the event of G*d's invitation to life through death, another smudge was noticed. What inspired me was our colleagues in the New York Sanctuary Coalition.At noon on Ash Wednesday they were outside Federal Plaza praying for a way to invigorate an honorable and dignified immigrant policy as a country. Pastors and leaders provided the Smudge to any who desired. Undocumented & documented persons lined up. Federal Officers, security, police, lawyers, and those passing by came for the smudge. Together there was a moment of honest to G*d.
May your Lent be an inspiration from moment to moment, day to day.
I remain, Rev. David H. Rommereim