Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down. Ashes on your forehead can begin a reorientation of your heart.
BY DAVID RICKEY — In the Judeo-Christian tradition, ashes are a symbol of penitence and mortality. In the Old Testament, Job sits in ashes both because he has lost his children and all his livestock and because he is suffering severly from boils, apparently with God’s approval.
The demonstration of penitence was also intended to persuade God not to punish a people or an individual. In the story of Jonah, the people of Ninevah put on sackcloth and sit in ashes to demonstrate penitence in the hope that God will have a change of mind and not destroy the city.
This Ash Wednesday millions of Christians will participate in a ritual that involves having ashes put on their foreheads to symbolize their attitude of penitence and their intention to repent.
I have seen long lines leading to many churches on Ash Wednesday. People waiting just to get the ashes. But this year there seems to be more finger pointing than self-reflection. We need to evolve from blame to personal responsibility.
A season for spiritual reflection
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. It is a time which focuses on the need for spiritual self-reflection. It can’t be just an outward sign but an intention toward inner transformation.
“Original Sin” was introduced to Christian theology by Augustine of Hippo (November 13, 354 A.D. – August 28, 430 A.D.) as he watched Rome disintegrating from within and being overrun by the barbarians.
Why St. Augustine still matters
He developed a very pessimistic view of humankind — that none of us are capable of being good.
In the 20th Century, Matthew Fox wrote a book, Original Blessing, where he discusses the opposite view — that our “original” state is one of grace and blessing. While many see the present time as proof that we have fallen from Grace, instead, I believe, we are being given a big Karmic lesson to orient our hearts toward compassion for others, so that that Grace may flow through us again. When we stop looking outside at other “barbarians” and turn our gaze deeo inside, we can find the true source of Grace – the Divine Spirit that dwells within each of us.
The Ash Wednesday Psalms and Prayers speak of creating a new and contrite heart. Lent is a time for preparing for new birth and better life.
Wallowing in our sinfulness accomplishes little. Trying to get God to change contradicts the divine energy that eternally seeks to change us.
Lent, therefore, wants to be a time of inner-shifting.
If not to a new heart, then to our true heart — discovering and nurturing that deeper connection to wisdom and all life that transforms our external choices.
Earthy and Earthly
The “Fall” described in the early chapters of Genesis essentially describe the rise to power of the ego, where we separate out from each other and from life. And, I think the present battles over budgets and even Football Player salaries are painful examples of the continue hold our personal and collective Egos have on our choices.
We choose to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, instead of the Tree of Life. Instead of living from the spirit that has been breathed into us, we think we can make it on our own via the machinery of thought, the act of thinking.
In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the priest says: “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.”
Sounds sad but this can point to a more optimistic view. The “dust” we are is the dust of creation into which God breathes spirit, which gives us life. So ashes and dust tell us of our true nature, earthy and earthly, but with divine spirit enlivening us.
Like the writers of ABC’s LOST, we know Latin, too
Humility comes from the same root as humus — earthy soil, the “dust” from which we are created. Penitence comes from the Latin, paenitent, meaning to feel regret. The humility we should feel is not the wretched sinfulness the Church often teaches.
Instead, it should be an awareness of our “earthiness” AND the awareness of the spirit that makes that dust alive.
Jesus, the Buddha, Ramana Maharshi, Martin Luther King and Gandhi all show us what levels our incarnated spirits can rise to.
Lent is a time to ask ourselves what’s holding us back and to dedicate ourselves to moving forward. Sitting in sackcloth, even metaphorically, is a waste of time.
Especially now, Lent is a call for us to re-align our hearts with the consciousnes that brought us into being. For this is why we are here — to participate in the process of Creation by living from Spirit, the spirit that animates the dust from which our human form is made.
Instead, it’s time to shake off the dust, and let ashes rise like a phoenix to the heights of our potentials.
David Rickey is a co-founder of Soul’s Code, as well as an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist. His columns share real-life advice about relationships, personal purpose, and a deep-reading of prophets and contemporary seers. Follow David on Twitter.
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