Ash Wednesday in Years A, B, and C (Litman-Koon23)

From Dust, To Dust  – Kris Litman-Koon explores how Ash Wednesday is an invitation to reassess what we value with God, with neighbor, and with creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Readings for Ash Wednesday, Years A, B, and C (2023, 2026)
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Isaiah 58:1-12 (alternate)
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

For multiple reasons, Ash Wednesday is an observance when those preaching will often focus more on the day rather than the text. First, this is because the liturgy bears the bulk of the day’s significance, not the assigned readings. Second, the lessons are repeated every year, so going off the prescribed texts on this day can help keep the proclamation fresh. Third, this day is frequently used to launch a Lenten theme for that congregation or community. This commentary aims to acknowledge these options while also exploring the assigned texts for this day, all done through a lens of eco-theology.

Let us begin with the traditional Ash Wednesday liturgy. The Invitation to Lent is only three brief paragraphs, yet this invitation strongly directs us to recall the stories of creation and new creation in scripture. The most obvious connection to eco-theology in the Invitation to Lent takes place in its second paragraph, which says in part, “We are created to experience joy in communion with God, to love one another, and to live in harmony with creation. But our sinful rebellion separates us from God, our neighbors, and creation, so that we do not enjoy the life our creator intended.” Clearly there is a vision for an existence that is balanced and at peace with God, neighbor, and physical world of which we are a part, and clearly humanity fails to experience that vision in its entirety. A literal interpretation of the Genesis passages is not required to believe this is the case, for all of us should be able to admit that humanity is not rising to the ideal of living in harmony with God, with each other, and with the world around us.

The first paragraph of the Invitation to Lent references Jesus’ transition from death to life, and how our life in Christ is renewed. That imagery certainly parallels events that occur in nature, like the transition of winter to spring or a seed falling to the soil, or how the physical elements within a deceased creature are naturally “recycled” into a new creation. The Invitation to Lent certainly has a theological understanding of “death to life” that rises above the previously mentioned natural processes, so a preacher may choose to introduce a theological view through these natural images. Likewise, the season of the year can be utilized to introduce those concepts: Ash Wednesday generally falls on the cusp of winter’s end, and Lent encourages us to allow parts of ourselves to die while holding onto the vision of a renewed life in Christ.

The Imposition of Ashes has the prominent proclamation “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” spoken to each person. This is a reference to the creation of Ha-adam found in Genesis 2:7; “then the Lord God formed [Ha-adam] from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and [Ha-adam] became a living being.” Ha-adam (i.e. earth creature or dust creature) has an undisputed etymological connection to Adamah (i.e. dust, dirt, and earth). In fact, this connection to the earth is what defines the creature.

Whether it is images like Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, or epic literature like John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or even the religious instruction we previously received, there are outside influences that shape our perception of this passage in Genesis 2. However – as difficult as it may be – we must allow the actual Hebrew words of the text to be the dominant influence of our perception. Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm explains how the verses concerning the creation of the first woman are about the creation of the first man as well. Genesis 2:21-22 says, “The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon [Ha-adam]… He took one of his ribs… And the rib (tzela) that the Lord God had taken from the man He made (va’yiven) into a woman.” The rabbi explains that tzela is best translated as “side,” which is an architectural term, like the side of a building; the “rib” definition of the word did not develop until after the Bible was composed. Va’yiven is best translated as “to build,” which is another architectural term. What is taking place in the passage is the dust creature Ha-adam (presumably bearing the sexual components of all humans) is split into two sides, and then one side is built into the first woman and the other side is built into the first man.

A preacher will have to discern whether an Ash Wednesday worship service is an appropriate setting to distill that reading of the passage. What is more important is how such a reading shapes the day’s proclamation. First, every human being – of every gender identity – can find themself in the story’s Ha-adam. Second, the link between every person and the dust of the earth is a direct one; the story does not support an interpretation that says the woman had a connection to the earth indirectly through the man. Third, the breath of God that gives life to the dust creature (Genesis 2:7) is a breath that we all receive. That breath of life is what sustains us, for once we stop this breath, that is when we begin to return to dust. Our scientific understanding of the interplay of the various kingdoms of biology allows us to see how connected our breathing is to the breathing of other creatures, and that the dust of our bodies is connected to the dust of other creatures. God is the source and sustainer of these processes.

Ash Wednesday is a day to reflect on your own mortality, on your own contributions to this planet for a blip of time, and to mourn a future without you. This bleak day certainly has its unique standing in the pantheon of Christian holidays. Yet focusing on our mortality and thinking of a future that exists beyond our death can motivate action now. This is certainly true in our spiritual lives, as evidenced by people engaging the worship service, and it is true of our social lives, as we anticipate a future planet existing beyond our own lifetimes.

“We’ve all experienced profound loss in our lives – a bad breakup, incurable diseases, tragedies that feel like the world is crumbling in on top of us. What might it mean for an entire country or society or civilization to walk together, hand in hand, through stages of grief and loss and depression and mourning, at the same time? What would it be like to anticipate not only our own death but The End, the apocalypse? That’s what it’s like to be alive in the world these days.

Beyond the forthcoming technological advances that will occur during this climate emergency is a revolution in human psychology – the way we view ourselves and our place in the grand order of things. Rising seas, mass migrations, and escalating extreme weather events mean the idea of humanity’s dominion over the natural world is about to get turned on its head. ‘If we don’t demand radical change,’ activist and author Naomi Klain said, ‘we are headed for a whole world of people searching for a home that no longer exists.’

Individually, each of us will have to go through a grieving process for the loss of a world we believed in our bones would always be there. Collectively, to help mourn and accept this loss, we will have to share with one another the alternative visions of a shared future, stories about how climate doom is not inevitable, and what the future Earth might look like if we do what is required – and still entirely possible – to hold off the greatest threat to our very existence” (Eric Holthaus, The Future Earth. New York: HarperOne, 2020, p. 21).

A preacher who longs to take the focus of Ash Wednesday away from singular mortality would do well to contemplate Holthaus’ comments. Pondering grief and the loss of ourselves can be cultivated into fertile soil for visioning a hoped-for future.

Turning to the lectionary for Ash Wednesday, it is hard to pinpoint a date of composition for the Book of Joel due to its lack of references to people or historic events. Theories range from the 9th century BCE to the 5th century BCE. That might be fitting, though, because its message can resonate after any disaster. In chapter 1 we find that a plague of locusts has ruined the land in addition to an apparent drought. These events come and go (both then and now), yet that doesn’t lessen the devastation that takes place in the local ecosystem and to the human lives who depend on the system’s balance. Joel’s message to the people in that situation is the body of our pericope: return to the Lord with fasting, weeping, and mourning, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (paraphrase of Joel 2:12-13). How might a preacher connect that message to the devastating events of today that are exacerbated by climate change? Like verse 12 we acknowledge the suffering that is occurring within ourselves and throughout creation, and like verse 13 we acknowledge the goodness of God. Will everyone – especially the powerful individuals whose motives are profits – take to heart verse 13? It is unlikely. However, we continue to work with the motivation that God is the source of all that is, and that God delights in life and balance within creation.

If the preacher is pondering whether to use the alternative lesson – Isaiah 58:1-12 – instead of the Joel text, heed this warning to plan accordingly: this pericope was used within recent weeks in the Matthew year of the lectionary (5th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A). If the Isaiah option is used for Ash Wednesday, it offers a great opportunity to focus on themes of eco-justice. Verses 6 and 7 are some of the most powerful in all of scripture in calling our attention to see injustices in our midst and to act on them. So many examples of contemporary oppression are tied to eco-justice: tribal sovereignty, local NIMBY matters, the availability of clean drinking water, and the list goes on. Note how the passage uses imagery from nature to describe the outcome of people working for the justice of the oppressed; “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly” (Isaiah 58:8a, the Hebrew tsamach is the sprouting of a plant), and “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

In the Matthew pericope for Ash Wednesday, the bulk of the text focuses on how to give alms, how to pray, and how to fast. Each of these sections begin with the word “whenever” (hotan in Greek). Jesus leaves no room for if we do these actions; his instructions are for when we do them. In traditional Jewish thinking – and the Jesus depicted by Matthew definitely kept to this thinking (see Matthew 5:17) – the giving of alms or any other material support for those in need is not considered an act of charity (i.e. generosity beyond the expectation), it is a required responsibility. By having a relationship with God, there is an expectation that we will care for others just as God cares for us, which is true both in Judaism and in Jesus’ teachings for his followers (e.g. Matthew 5:13-16).

It must be said that when Jesus warns against acting as the hypocrites do in the synagogues (Matthew 5:2,5, and 16), he is not describing how people in synagogues behave. The Jewish practice has never been to make a show of these acts. However, in every time and place there is the possibility of someone who seeks attention and accolades; that behavior is what Jesus is warning against. Sounding a trumpet to announce donations is a metaphor for this type of behavior. In the real world there was no practice of this, even though that is popularly assumed in Christian preaching due to a literal reading of the text. (See annotations by Aaron M. Gale, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 22.)

The instructions to give alms, to pray, and to fast can be applied to our spirituality of creation care, whether that occurs at the start of Lent or no particular day. First, the work we do to heal the creation is very important, but we must check whether the decisions we make in this work are rooted in how others may view us. Much of the work can be done with no fanfare. Second, as Christians, God is at the center of the work that we do. It is fine to work hand in hand with others who have a different understanding of the divine or who have no belief at all, yet Christians are asked to pray; to allow that breath of God to feed and sustain us through this tiring work. Finally, our fasting ought not draw attention to ourselves. When we abstain from foods or consumer goods – which in various forms is common practice in this work of caring for the world around us – we must allow that fast to carry its own value. Do not value the fast solely for its capability to gain others’ attention.

Ash Wednesday is not a favorite occurrence on the church calendar for many people. However, as evidenced by participation in the day, people are longing to draw some meaning out of this experience. The preacher has the opportunity shape a broader the vision of the day’s significance. A narrow focus on the mortality of the listener could be the end of the vision shared in the sermon, yet the vision could be much more. The individual’s mortality can be a launching pad to connecting the listener to the dust of the earth, to the breath shared with other creatures, and to a vision of a verdant world that will exist after our last breath.

Originally written by Kris Litman-Koon in 2023.

Insights from Kris Litman-Koon can be found on Twitter, @_KrisLK