Today is Ash Wednesday. You might be making a stop somewhere today for a priest to daub you with ashes in the sign of the cross, bracing yourself to forgo chocolate or coffee or swearing for forty days, or you won’t and it is simply another Wednesday. Either is (probably) fine.
The branch of the Christian family tree we sit on (Pentecostalism) isn’t massive on observing Holy Days, following global liturgy or partaking in religious ritual. Do not be misled, in the absence of some behaviours, we have plenty of preference and habits we are keen on though.
I’m not a huge fan of tradition in its forms of pageantry or leaned-on-weightiness through compulsion of duty. Perhaps as a child of the 80s, seasoned in the 90s and maturing through the 00s it is inevitable and unavoidable I feel a strong sense of independence and the need to prod and push at things. Moving to a place where obstinacy and defiance (Quocunque Jeceris Stabit - fella!) are celebrated as a national identity didn’t hurt in developing those tendencies either.
Function from between times can be strange. I remember writing and receiving letters, I remember how to use a rotary telephone but I’ve also just finished a Teams meeting with someone in India and have access to the entire world through the smartphone in my pocket.
It’s a weird but necessary space to occupy. We are not facsimiles of those and their ways who arrived here before us.
We are dust, ultimately inconsequential, permanently frail, entirely dependant on supernatural animation for existence. But this dust, as fly-away and annoying as it can be, is the vehicle for the plan of the redemption and restoration of everyone and everything. The dust is the plan.
How often do we feel like dust? Not pangs of frustration or pain of disappointment but looking directly at my time on earth and feeling a bit sheepish about what I’m doing with it. There’s no guilt in a day off and absolutely no shame in consciously uncoupling from a relationship of ‘doing’ as evidence value and worth. A healthy examination of who I am and where I come from once a year is probably a decent idea though. To re-engage with my necessity for God. To ask the Holy Spirit to reach in again and breath on what has solidified into stone in me. To be re-animated. For the cosmic components moulded in creation, carrying the image of God, for myself, to carry the miraculous and joyful. Sometimes, aware I am dust, I believe I have no meaning. Other times, aware I am dust, I believe I am meaning.
Your rite and ritual of pancakes last night might simply have been observed because they are delicious to eat and fun to flip around the kitchen. In that celebration though is a nod to preparation. Using up what’s in the cupboard before it isn’t replenished for a while we are marking the time between times. Preparation for going through a time without comfort, luxury, and indulgence, helps us remember Jesus’ desert temptation. There is a before and an after this ‘between times’. The weird space to occupy prepares us. We are taught from what we have enjoyed before but we enter a new space knowing what happens next will not be the continuation of the flavours, sights, smells and traditions we have previously been shaped by. After the pancakes and the ashes come a change. We submit ourselves, through the time of preparation, to the ways of Jesus.
Playing with tradition and being prepared to walk away from some of its practices doesn’t vacate my awareness of responsibility. Duty must not be communicated as the same thing as responsibility here. We go through the examination of dust and hold it together through the weird preparatory spaces to assume the call and commission of the Kingdom of God. We take seriously a way of life honouring God and serving others because of who we believe Jesus is rather than ‘because that’s what we’ve always done’. Who we are and where we come from matter. We are not the stereotypes of imagined national identity, we are not duty-bound to repeat ancient behaviours for fear of invoking ancestral displeasure. We are dust and belong to The Creator, Sustainer and Inheritor of life. Our responsibility is to carry the image of healing, peace and love to places unfamiliar with God’s ways. We do not perform fuelled by cultural duty to maintain ‘a way of life’, we are Spirit-filed with the responsibility to usher in new life.
The next forty days inspired by reading Genesis, Psalm 103, Matthew chapter 4, eating pancakes, cruciform ashes or just another Wednesday, commit to examining how as dust you are being moulded by the Spirit of God to pray, fast, and give to others.
Look hard at who you believe you are and what you’re doing about it. Not the vain repetition of the behaviour and call of others but the shape you are being asked to take and hold. Some of assuming your responsibility could involve asking God to teach and tell you new things while some of it might look like restarting some patterns of devotion you have abandoned.
The value of these strange spaces in-between times is allowing God to prepare you for what comes next. There is strength and focus available for us in the hunger we develop now.