Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the 40 days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter. Tonight I, like many other Christians, will go to church and receive the sign of the cross in ashes on my forehead. Why the ashes?
There is an old phrase, dust and ashes, from the funeral service of the Book of Common Prayer. It refers to mourning and confronting mortality. If you Google the phrase, you will find that many think its origin is in Genesis 3:19 where God curses Adam and says that since he came from dust, he will return to dust. But there is nothing about ashes in Genesis 3:19.
The phrase “dust and ashes” actually occurs in the Bible in Job 30:19. Job is complaining that God is persecuting him, that God has singled him out for undeserved Karma. Job says, “he (God) has cast me into the mire and I have become like dust and ashes.”
Now, since Job is still alive, this is not literal. He has not dissolved into dust nor been cremated into ashes. Dust and ashes stand for the misery and unfairness of his life. Job puts the responsibility for this directly upon God.
I have often said that most of the injustice in the world is not social injustice, but injustice that comes with existence. We blame injustice on the system, the corporations, the government, the patriarchy, or the 1 percent. But Job doesn’t. He blames the injustice he is experiencing on God.
To Job, it feels like God is his enemy. It feels like God is shooting arrows at him–not arrows of love, like Cupid-to injure and poison him (Job 6:4). And, although the ending of the book of Job shows that he is wrong, it also shows that his friends, who try to explain the cruelty of God away, are also wrong.
Lent ends with Easter. So at the end God stands exonerated, just as he does in the book of Job. But Lent allows us to contemplate the injustice of existence that leads to Jesus crying out from the cross about God’s abandonment. Lent validates our experience of the divine injustice of life. So the 40 days that end with lilies and trumpets begin with dust and ashes. Like Job’s friends, we will be tempted to skip over this part or explain it away.
By the way, Job’s friends didn’t go to hell because they spoke wrongly about God. Some folks apparently think that if you are theologically mistaken, you automatically go to hell. People should read Job 42:7-9. God takes it seriously that these friends of Job have not spoken about him what is right, as the passage puts it. But they make sacrifices and Job prays for them. God accepts Job’s prayer.