It’s time for the ultimate reality check: ”Remember, Man, you are but dust, and to dust you will return.” The priest tells me this as he marks my forehead with ashes smeared into the shape of a cross. Thus, Ash Wednesday begins Lent, 40 days of penitence, but, also, perhaps most importantly, of preparing to be restored to the full depth and breadth of reality. To begin Lent in ashes is to put my life into perspective. For what is this body that takes up so much of my time, that I fuss and worry over – what is it but dust? The little pleasures that might be given up for Lent – chocolate, coffee, computer games, daydreaming, etc. – are really only things that will one day become ashes themselves. I get possessive about things and cling to them as my own, even though they do not constitute who I am. I must remember that I am dust – dust animated by a soul… God created me, formed this body for me out of the earth, and gave me a spiritual soul to bring me into human being, so that I might fully live in His Creation. The truth is that I did not create myself; I am not my own source and I am not my own ultimate end. In truth – reality check – nothing that I have is my own, not even my existence, my life.
We human beings are dependent, as are all creatures. We are, from the beginning, dependent upon the Will that created us and we are continually dependent upon sustenance: from the air that we breathe, which is not our own, to the lungs with which we breathe, which were given to us. We are beggars living upon the largess of God’s Creation – with no hope of repayment. For, we cannot give to God anything that God has not first given to us. This is what has been referred to as our “empty-handedness”. And though we may often not care that we are dependent upon a generous God and, instead, revel and indulge in the abundance, greedily hoarding up goods to live self-centeredly, we cannot escape the truth forever. There will always come a moment in our lives when we wake up to reality and our eyes are opened to the truth. A rude awakening it will seem to some, perhaps, but a necessary one for the sake of truth. For, we humans are not only dependent – we are also transcendent beings. Within us is the relentless desire and longing for truth, for the source of our beings, and for connection and relationship to this infinite and divine Source – for love. It is in our nature to give and to love selflessly. It is in our nature precisely because we are created in God’s own image and likeness.
All that God wants (and that is a huge and profound statement: “all that God wants”) is for us to truly and fully live. We do that by being dependent – by knowing and accepting that we are dependent in true humility. And we do that by being transcendent, by longing for God and loving selflessly in our empty-handedness. In the great gift of life, God has given us something truly amazing: freewill. Perhaps, we could say that this is what is truly ours – our wills. When I choose to acknowledge the Source of my life, to humbly live upon the divine largess in true recognition and gratitude, and to hold back nothing for my own selfish intentions, then I am close to the Kingdom – I am close to True Justice, Right Order, the Fullness of Reality. As a humble beggar with my begging bowl upturned, I give to God the only thing that God has given to me irrevocably: my will. This is the soul of my existence, the soul of my being, the soul of truth. Everything else is but dust, ashes, and to dust it shall return. The only perfect offering that I can give to the Creator and Master of the Universe is myself. My will, given freely, becomes God’s will and in this I am fulfilled, my deepest longing is satisfied, and so the greatest joy is known, perfected in eternity.
With ashes on my forehead, I remember that every living thing, all of Creation, belongs to God. We belong to God, irrevocably. Surrendering our will to this truth is the one and only way to receive the fullness of life. If we seek to only serve ourselves, in self-centered will, then we serve only ashes. It is precisely because our hands are empty that we are able to experience true love – God doesn’t love us for anything that we have. The lowest pauper is as beloved as the highest prince, but only the beggar with empty, upturned bowl, who wills only what God wills, is rich in eternity. As St. Paul told the Philippians and tells us now:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”