Ashes and Dust and Broken Hearts

Psalm 51

It’s an old story, this one, since the young man in question turned eighteen not long ago.  And yet, I remember it like it was yesterday the Saturday morning when I broke my nephew’s heart.  I am telling you the truth when I say that I had a three-year-old standing at my feet weeping as though his world was coming to an end.  It even brought tears to my eyes to see him cry so, even though it would seem that the cause of his pain was no great reason for heartache.

For you see, I had cut Andrew’s carrot in half.  His mother was busy and he had marched into the kitchen that morning and asked for a carrot. Thinking this was something I could certainly handle, I went to the crisper drawer in my mother’s refrigerator, pulled out a carrot, washed and peeled it, and while he stood and waited, I asked if he want me to cut it in half. Truly, I did.  Certain that he had nodded yes, I did so. Apparently one of us misunderstood, though, for after I turned and handed it to him, he began to cry and begged me to fix it.

It was no time for reasoning.  I simply started over.  I went and got another carrot and washed and peeled it and handed it to him whole.  And though it may be making something large out of something small, as Andrew certainly did, still, I’ll not forget that moment of pain and my own helplessness when a three-year-old demanded that I ‘fix it’ and I knew that no matter how hard I tried I surely could not put that carrot back together again. So I did the next best thing, grateful that it was not the last carrot in the drawer, and I started over.

It was a small thing, to be sure, and Andrew forgot it immediately as he went off to watch Saturday morning cartoons with his cousins.  And yet, it made me think then, and it does still, of all the ways in which we fail each other — intentionally or not.  Of all the times we think we have heard what the other has said — when we really haven’t heard at all. Of all the times hearts are actually broken because of what we have said or done or failed to do or say.  At the very least, there regularly come those times when another begs us to ‘fix it.’  And all too often, we discover that we cannot.

And so Ash Wednesday is upon us once more.  A day when we are called upon to remember all the hearts we have broken, intentionally or not.  To recall those moments we have yearned to fix things and make them right and yet, have found that we could not.  On this day we are reminded of our frailty and our limits, our sins, and our failed attempts to make things right.  We are reminded with ashes on our foreheads that there are simply some things we cannot fix.  That more often than not, matters of life and death are, in the end, simply out of our hands.  So on Ash Wednesday as we would do well to do every day, we throw ourselves on the mercy of God. God who is the source of our life and our comfort in death. God who assures us that through his Son, all that we have broken, all that we have cut in half, WILL be put back together again through God’s love and mercy.  For we are reminded not only of our frailty when those ashes are traced on our foreheads.  No, indeed, it’s not just a shapeless smudge that is traced there, but the sign of the cross.  The same cross on which Jesus died for you and for me.  The same cross which was traced on your forehead on the day you were baptized.

On a Saturday morning a long time ago it was no time to try to convince my nephew that the carrot would taste the same in two pieces as in one.  The best option was to go to the crisper drawer and begin again. It turns out that in that way it was an easy fix.  Not so true always in the rest of our lives.  And yet, where there is forgiveness —- as it comes to us through Christ’s cross, then even this can be so. As we seek God’s forgiveness and that of one another.  As we do so not only with our speaking, but also with our doing… by giving back, building up, or at least standing still to acknowledge the pain we have caused.  In the midst of our lives, by the grace of God and the forbearance of one another, we get to start over, too.  As we join with all those of all the ages who pray,

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1-2)

And having thus prayed, the promise is that it is so.

  1. When you hear the words, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,’ what comes to mind? 
  2. In your understanding, what is the intention of this ancient ritual?  What impact does it have on those who practice it?
  3. Can you think of times when all you could do was rely on the grace promised to you — grace that may have let you ‘begin again’ by ‘blotting out’ your sin or by repairing your brokenness?  How do thoes experiences relate to Ash Wednesday

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