- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
If you happen to go out to a store or to the gym or to a restaurant today you may well discover all sorts of people walking around with smudges on their faces, not because they forgot to wash their face this morning but because today is Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar.
Millions of people from all over the world will walk into a church today and as ashes are rubbed onto their foreheads they will hear these solemn words spoken to them:
Remember you are dust,
and unto dust you shall return.
Honestly I used to think that Ash Wednesday was a pretty gloomy day if not down-right macabre with all that talk about returning to dust. Who wants to be reminded that we are all going to die? And on top of all that, Ash Wednesday also carried the additional baggage of "warning" people that since they are going to die, in the time they have left, they should repent of their sins if they expect to go to heaven when death finally comes.
My guess is that a lot of people think of ashes and warnings about death as being pretty somber, gloomy and even kind of scary - I have come to embrace a whole different understanding of it all.
I am reminded of something I recently read in one of Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh's, books as he reflects on the earth and the dust of our common humanity:
You are made of water. If you remove the water there is no 'you' left.
You are made of earth. If you remove the element of earth from you, there is no 'you' left.
You are made of air, without air you cannot survive.
If you remove the air from you, there is no 'you' left.
You are made of light, without sunlight you cannot survive,
and you know that the earth, as well as yourself,
is made of stars.
On a clear night you can look up and see that you are the stars above.
You don't have a separate self.
You're not just the tiny body you normally think of as 'yourself,'
I actually think these words of wisdom from a Zen Master may well express the essence of the Christian Ash Wednesday message - a message directed not just to Christians but to every single human being, reminding us that we are not isolated separated individuals, we are all far more than the tiny body we normally think of as our "self,." We are all part of something bigger, more cosmic and transcendent. We all belong to the cosmos, and "God" is the abiding energy that connects it all.
The ashes of this day remind me that we came from "God;" we abide in "God;" and we return to "God."
Maybe we should all rub a smudge of ash and earth on our faces on this day regardless of the path we are on in life so that we can all walk around and remind one another of this profound truth:
Remember you are water.
Remember you are earth.
Remember you are air.
Remember you are sunlight, and
Remember you are stardust and to the stars you shall return.
Nothing gloomy about that!