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Ash Wednesday

"You are dust, and to dust you shall return." That is one of the most powerful phrases of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. We also hear it repeated in the burial liturgy. It is certainly a reminder of our mortality but it is also a reminder that for all our high flung opinions about our human accomplishments, there is a part of God’s creation we cannot escape no matter how important we think we are, how much money we have, how many things we own, no matter how advanced science becomes. We are part of God’s created order and it is to God we return having accomplished some things during the time we spend on this planet.

There is a poem by Linda Ellis that was published in 1996.[1] The first four stanzas go like this:

I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on her tombstone from the beginning…to the end.

He noted that first came the date of her birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years. For that dash represents all the time that she spent alive on earth and now only those who loved her know what that little line is worth. For it matters not, how much we own, the cars…the house…the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash...

"You are dust, and to dust you shall return." Solemn words for a solemn occasion—a ritual recognition of our mortality but how we choose to spend our “dash” yields the ultimate difference for our lives.

Does a closer walk with Jesus over the upcoming forty days of Lent only deepen our intellectual knowledge of his journey to Jerusalem or does it invite us into an intimacy with God that eventually includes action steps: seeking after justice, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, breaking the yoke of oppression.

I think that might be what Isaiah was suggesting to the people of his day in one of the readings for Ash Wednesday (Isaiah 58:1-12).

It is not enough to lie about in sackcloth and ashes trying to look more mournful than your neighbor. It is about drawing close to God in those moments of contemplation so that a person’s heart and mind is transformed into an action that makes a difference to someone else.

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?" (Isaiah 58:6-7 NRSV)

What would it look like if our upcoming journey in Lent sought to rekindle that divine spark that lives within us? What might it feel like if we allowed God the grace, space and time to truly restore us physically, mentally and spiritually and, in turn, how would that change the world around us that we touch?

"The forty days of Lenten preparation are in many ways a call to live a life counter to 21st century culture...” (The Rev. Margaret Rose, The Episcopal Church Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Collaboration)

We tend to think of ourselves as humans in search of what it means to be spiritual but I sometimes wonder if we have it backwards. What if we are essentially spiritual beings in search of what it means to be human? What if the time we spend here in this lifetime is meant to shape a part of our spiritual soul for our greater good and the greater good of all creation? Sometimes the journey and the destination are the same thing.

Copyright © 2017 Carole A. Wageman. All rights reserved.

This article was recently published in The Mountain, the bi-monthly newsletter of The Episcopal Church in Vermont (

NOTE: Similar stories from Scripture are explored more fully in my upcoming book: “The Light Shines Through: Our Stories Are God’s Story” coming out in early March 2017. More information plus pre-ordering available now at and .

You can also order a copy through Hopkins Bookshop at Trinity 802 985-2269

[1] Accessed February 2017

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