Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2023

December 15, 2022 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Ps 51:1-17 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10 Matt 6:1-6, 16-21

“Dust to dust and ashes to ashes were never said of the soul,” so pronounces a tombstone at a church cemetery of the Presbyterian Church in Lewinsville, Virginia.  Ash Wednesday turns us toward our mortality and the well-known question of Mary Oliver, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[i] How we answer this question can be a matter of spiritual and even physical life and death.  Will we attend to the ways of life or the ways of death?  Will we repent wrongdoing, and chart new pathways of healing and wholeness, or will we remain mired in ways of injustice and disease?

As a regular Ash Wednesday preacher, I see 2 Corinthians 6:2 as the heart of this holy day: “For God says, ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

Now is the time for transformation. This is the Holy Here and Now in which God offers us the opportunity to look at our lives, repent our wrongdoing or distance from God, begin again, and accept God’s new life. Life is here in this time and place, body and relationships. Ash Wednesday is a day of provocative possibility in which we can let go of the past, forgive and be forgiven, come to terms with our sin and mortality, and embrace God’s process of creative transformation.

The reading from the Sermon on the Mount invites us to consider what we truly “treasure.”  After telling his followers not to store up – or be attached to – earthy treasures, Jesus concludes with “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  In the language of Paul Tillich, Jesus is asking, “What is your ultimate concern?” or around which values do you center your life?  Ash Wednesday challenges us to self-awareness, to discern what is truly important to us, or again in Mary Oliver’s words, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Jesus’ words join the inner and outer dimensions of piety.  Spiritual evolution is not a matter of “show” or “external demonstration,” but an inner adventure, a struggle to be faithful to God’s ways.  The fruits of our spiritual evolution will be revealed, but parading our enlightenment separates us from others, those mortals who are less virtuous or enlightened than ourselves and is a form of ego attachment separating us from God’s expansive vision for our lives. First, however, spirituality begins with solitude, which then reaches out to the wider universe.  The point of stature or size, as Bernard Loomer asserts, is to recognize the contrasts within our nature, and the temptations that shaped our lives, as they did the life of Jesus.  In self-awareness, we gain a level of self-mastery and congruence with God’s vision for our lives internally and in our outer behavior and political involvement.

The passages from Joel 2 and Psalm 51 explore the dynamic process of confession, repentance, and restoration to wholeness.  Joel challenges the nation and its citizens to recognize their precarious situation.  A day of darkness and gloom is upon the nation.  We must mend our ways – and do it quickly – or face the terrible consequences of our actions. This scripture is a wakeup call to the people of Israel and to every nation – including our nation. The soul of the nation must be healed if we are to survive as a viable and civil society.  We must confess our misplaced treasures: materialism, privilege, racial, sexual, and political alienation, environmental destruction, and economic injustice.  Only through confession – corporate and individual – can we hope to heal our nation.  Joel 2 describes a living God, whose nature is relational. Continued injustice leads to personal and corporate destruction.  The Living God is responsive: God will change the course of history in response to our repentance and acts of restorative justice and healing.  God changes course in response to our changing course.[ii]

Psalm 51 joins self-awareness and grace.  The penitent begs for mercy, recognizing their imperfection and its impact on God, his community, and themselves. The penitent’s prayer is heartfelt.  While their infractions may be small by comparison to others, the Psalmist feels the gravity of sin that separates us from one another. The Psalmist mourns their alienation and its impact.

I struggle with Psalm 51:5, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”  This smacks of some form of original sin, and punishment for the mere fact of existing.  If you read this sentence – and frankly, I omit it – you have to address it.  I “rescue” this sentence, from a process perspective, in two ways: 1) noting that it is an existential and not ontological or moral statement reflecting the penitent’s deep pain at the harm they have done, even when it was unintended, and 2) the recognition that we are born into a broken social and relational order that shapes our lives.  We are social beings, and the impact of our environment, immediate in our families and indirect in our social and planetary order, influences our own behavior.

On Ash Wednesday, we affirm that we can begin again.  We seek to hold our mortality and imperfection in creative contrast with the promise of everlasting life and divine grace.  We are “dust,” and we are also stardust.  There is infinity flowing through us.  We are broken and yet God constantly provides possibilities appropriate to our current situation and future hope.  Now is the day of salvation.

[i] Mary Oliver, House of Light (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990), 60.

[ii] For the interplay of process theology and prophetic challenge, see Bruce Epperly, Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision of Contemplative Activism (Friends United Press, 2020) and The Prophet Amos Speaks to American: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Politics (Energion, 2022).

Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including The Elephant Is Running: Process and Open and Relational Theology and Religious PluralismProphetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision Of Contemplative Activism; Mystic’s In ActionTwelve Saints For Today; Walking With Saint Francis: From Privilege To Activism; Messy Incarnation: Meditations On Process Christology, and From Cosmos To Cradle: Meditations On The Incarnation. His latest book is The Prophetic Amos Speaks To America. He can be reached for seminars and talks at