If it seems like a bunch of people are walking around today looking like they forgot to wash their faces, that's because today is "Ash Wednesday" in the Christian calendar - the beginning of the Lenten season. On this day ashes are smudged on foreheads with the reminder that we are all gong to die someday. We are all "dust and to dust we shall return."
I often wonder what people think Ash Wednesday really means, and what they imagine Lent is all about?
I am sure that many people believe (and have been taught) that today's ashes are reminders that, since we are all going to die, we better start getting ready for it. So, use the next 40 days of Lent to get on God's good side before that final day.
We hear that "Lent" is a time to focus on "sin," I know that as I grew up I learned that "sins" were "offenses against God." When we "sin," we make God sad, or worse than that, we make God mad, and you don't want to do that to "the Big Guy in the sky." So, Lent is a time for saying "sorry" to God, hoping this appeases "Him" and wins "His" favor in this life, saving you from punishment when you finally do turn back to dust.
I actually don't think the season of Lent has anything whatsoever to do with appeasing an angry God whose feelings are hurt because of sins committed. I also believe that Lent is not just a season for Christians. Every person everywhere can celebrate the spirit of Lent- believers and non-believers alike.
As I see it, the word "sin" is a word that is so commonly used but also so very deeply misunderstood. In fact I hesitate even to use the word "sin" because it's meaning has been so distorted over time.
The fact is that, in its ancient context, that word "sin" was not used to describe an offense against God, rather it was used to describe "ruptured relationships" among communities of people.
When we "sin," we deliberately fracture our connection with others, with nature and with the world. When our "ego" takes precedence over our relationships, we sin. When we place our own personal gratification as the primary goal in living our everyday lives, when we deceive others, or use others, or hold grudges, or do others violence, we sin. When we ignore the needs of the poor and weak, when we act with prejudice against others who are different from us or foreign to us, we sin. When we pollute the oceans, destroy the rain forests, litter the earth and contaminate the air, we sin
Every day, when I walk outside past our neighbor's house, I look at a piece of broken pottery they have displayed in their side yard, and I always think about a piece of wisdom that comes out of the Jewish mystical tradition.
There is a "Kabbalah" wisdom teaching that tells the story of the beginning of time. In the very beginning, the energy of "God's" light was contained in a vessel, but that vessel was broken. It was smashed into little pieces and scattered over the universe - shards of the "God-light" spread throughout the universe throughout time.
Ever since then, human beings have been charged with the task of "mending" that which was broken into pieces. To this day, Jews engage in an everyday practice of "tikkun olam" -mending a broken world.
The practice of compassion, reconciliation, mercy and forgiveness, working for peace and justice, caring for a broken environment- these are all acts of "tikkun olam"- mending a broken world- collecting the shards of the scattered energy of "God-light" and piecing them back together so that the universe might once again someday glow with the pristine beauty of God's light and love.
When I see people walking around with ashes smudged on their foreheads today, I will see this as a reminder to me that we are all called to engage in the everyday task of "tikkun olam." This Lenten season is a time for me and for every human being to gather together the scattered shards of "God-light," to repair a broken world, to heal ruptured relationships.
Lent is a season to mend. Indeed it is a time to turn away from sin.