In chemistry, if you want to change something, you add a reagent. A reagent is a transformational element that causes a reaction so that everything is completely changed. Scientifically described, that’s the spiritual transformation at the heart of Ash Wednesday.
What’s present here is dust. We are dust. We are finite and fallible. We are capable of great good – and great harm. The daily news documents the destruction we wreak on creation and each other. We need something cosmic to correct things. We need a spiritual reagent to change us completely so we are more humane, forgiving, and loving. And the spiritual element that can make that happen is ash.
Add ash to dust – add penitence to pride; add sorrow to sinfulness; add regret and repentance to our dead-end deeds and doomed direction – and you get something wholly (holy) new: You get humbled, humane human hearts. Tyrannical egos hell-bent on climbing over others become selfless servants, who lift others out of hell and into life. Add ash to dust; add contrition to complacency; add humility to hubris – and a higher humanity arises that begins to truly reflect God’s goodness and love.
Pacific Northwest salmon hatch in freshwater streams and begin their journey to the sea where an astonishing transformation happens: In order for salmon to live in the salty ocean, every cell in their body transforms so they become a new creation: A new creature capable to thrive and grow in the ocean’s bounty.
2nd Peter says that’s what we have to do, too, because we are part of a creation-wide transformation that’s coming. In the divine denouement, all creation’s elements will be dissolved with fire; fused with the fierce holiness of our Creator. The rock group U2 sings of this glorious change that is coming: “I believe in Kingdom come when all the colors will bleed into one.” U2’s lyrics about bleeding and 2nd Peter’s words about dissolving are poetic images that describes this holy truth: All that is antithetical to God’s love, justice, and peace will be burned away until nothing is left but that which is pure love. God is love and the new creation will one with God by being fully loving, too. That’s the good news. Now, here’s the better news: We don’t have to wait until Kingdom come; we can be loving right now. We can incarnate compassion; work for justice; and establish peace in our actions, relationships, lives, communities, and world today. Why wait until you get to heaven to have eternal life when you can live that way right now?
We can because Jesus Christ is risen today. His righteous path, sacrificial life, and living love is the Way, Truth, and Life we can receive, share, and live right now with humility, hope, and joy. None of us can change this old world. We don’t have to. Because Christ already has and will. History, humanity, the whole shebang. He truly does have the whole world in his hands: Transforming this timeline with providence; reconciling our guilt with his grace.
Because of our Savior, we have nothing to fear – and everything to live for. Who wants to slave away for the stingy, booby prizes the world dangles before us when we have already been given everything by our faithful God as sheer gift right now?
And a part of that truly amazing grace is this: By grace, we can change direction. In Christ, we can chart a new course. We can renounce the world’s deluded, dead-end ways. By the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, we can embrace the Easter ways of our Savior as a new creation. We are dust, but with ash and providence and grace everything is changed: We can incarnate, share, and celebrate the Life that is so good that it never ends. That Life is here. The time to live is now.