Tonight I’ll bite down on a big fat donut, a riot of color and sugar, and it will taste like celebration.
And by morning, like so much I’ve eaten, it will turn to ashes in my mouth.
Not that physical pleasure is evil, but it is ephemeral. Almost everything is, really. We think we know people, but in most cases we see a snapshot, a mere second, of the narrative of their lives. I am a baby, and so are you, and a lot of what we do still comes from that baby-place of open mouths and grasping limbs, unthinkingly wanting our needs satisfied. And from another angle, we are piles of ashes, perhaps dirt.
I don’t love thinking about this, but there’s a certain relief in it, in stopping running from the truth long enough to catch my breath. As the Buddhist saying goes, “Since death is certain, and the moment of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” Not another donut, not some other fleeting delight. Not checking Facebook until my eyes glaze over. Not whatever argument I’ve tangled myself in, not keeping score of the wrongs done to me. Not rolling over and going back to sleep, rejecting the terrors of the world in favor of a cozy bubble. Not regrets, not fears. Just this glorious moment and the beautiful and burdensome gift of choice within it. Just the fact that I’ve been let loose into this world with a chance to choose love, to follow the scent back to the Source and share food with my fellow travelers.
So, with my stomach still full of fat, it’s into the desert with Jesus. Time to stare my hunger for food, power, safety in the face. Time to realize that sooner or later, I’ll have to climb that hill to Jerusalem, and look, there’s a cross with my name on it. I can either run from that knowledge, choose to live as long as possible ignorant of the pain of others, make my goal to die as wrinkle-free and scar-free as possible, or I can shoulder the rough wood, take up part of the burden of the world we all carry together. I can choose to say with Jesus, “I hear your cries, I love you. Let me drink from your cup of sorrow. I’m here with you. There’s hope.”
Yes, I’m a pile of ashes, soft and fluffy, dirty and bitter, harmless and helpless. But Ash Wednesday also holds a promise: that these are ashes to rise from. These are the ashes of nature’s great forest fire, the food of new life, potential energy for evolution. And when we burn away what imprisons us, the smoke and light reach all the way to Heaven.