A Dusty Present
“From dust you came, to dust you will return.”
This is the phrase many in our human family will hear today when ashes are deposited on foreheads around the world. In the Christian world today marks the first day of the Lenten season, which leads that world to the celebration of Easter. And the imposition of ashes on the brows of so many is a much older tradition than even the church that remembers this day with this ritual.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, there are many references to sprinkling ashes on one’s head to demonstrate repentance for errors, transgressions, or for sins. As a Unitarian Universalist community, we do not take a church-wide or a movement-wide view on sin or even errors or transgressions. In matters of personal relationships, most Unitarian Universalists leave questions like these up to an individual’s personal faith, personal practice, or good old-fashioned conscience. But perhaps conversely, our faith tradition stands out from the crowd in acknowledging and often owning what might more readily be called corporate or societal sin, where ways that society or large groups transgress the lives and liberties of others in ways that are harmful and wrong.
The weight and gravity of these societal sins are heavy. They weigh on our mind, especially in times when we consider solutions or ways of mending complex and routine harms. Holding these pains and questions in tension with our lives, though, can have a convenient effect, at least for me. When faced with the manifold wrongs of a society in which I participate, who could be bothered with whether we snap at someone who snaked a parking spot? Who could worry too much if we stretch a story a little farther than the truth to prove a point? Who wouldn’t understand teeing off on someone who wounded our pride?
From a purely ethical point of view, balancing the tonnage of wrongs we see in the world against what our lives might hold would draw one’s attention to the greater blot on our increasingly less civil society. And this is when I remember some of my Sunday school. The forty days so many embark on today is a reflection or mimicry of other journeys. Ancient writings tell us that Moses withdrew from society for forty days to consider his actions and that Jesus withdrew for forty days to consider his place in society and history. The forebears of this tradition put wider society aside for a period.
In some ways, Unitarian Universalism offers a keener insight than other faiths into this practice. Many in the religious establishment see our faith as standing outside of a wider family of dogmatic faiths already. And the sacred individualism our tradition encourages lands many of us in a wilderness or a desert of our own from time to time. And that is when I remember that from dust I came, to dust I will return. What does this dust fear that would draw it into rash action or prideful outbursts? What makes this dust wish to be anything but itself? And what might those answers actually tell us about the wrongs the wider world faces every day? Whatever those answers may be, may we face them together.
May it always be so,
Rev. T. J.