This week Christians around the globe will kneel before a priest, who will take a thumb print from a bowl of ashes and apply it to their foreheads. "Remember you are dust," the priest will intone, "and to dust you shall return." The ritual will signify their frailty as mortals and their penitence as sinners. And the Good News is ...?
Ash Wednesday springs from the doctrine of original sin. According to classic Christian theology, both our mortality and our sinfulness arise from the same source--Adam and Eve. Eve ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; she gave some to Adam; their eyes were opened to their nakedness; they felt ashamed; and God evicted them from the Garden. They were no longer innocent, no longer children. They knew too much.
The weight of Christian tradition has interpreted Adam and Eve's sin as rebellion against God, predetermining that all future generations of humanity were bound to repeat their mistake. But many people hear the story and say, Wait a minute! Wasn't their "sin" just a matter of growing up? Were they really meant to remain children for all eternity, just doing what they were told? Wasn't it inevitable that they would eat the fruit? Didn't God already know they would, so that their human journey could begin?
When I was filling in as a chaplain to an Anglican girls' school, and Ash Wednesday came around, I changed it up. Rather than reminding teenaged girls that they were sinful to the core and that they were all going to die, I thought I might tell them instead that, like all adults, they were in process. They weren't lost; they just hadn't found their way yet. For that to happen, they needed to pay attention to the wonderful possibilities God had already planted deep in their souls, like seeds planted in the earth, and to follow where that led.
Instead of ashes, we used potting soil. "Remember you are dirt," I said, "and to dirt you shall return." The dirt failed to adhere to their foreheads, tumbling instead down their noses in little clumps onto their crisp white blouses. It made the ritual a bit slapstick, but less about self-loathing, of which teenagers are already capable, and more about hope. It was about who they were becoming, not about who they failed to be. To me, it made sense of a story that otherwise only added to their anxiety about growing up. The only question that remained: growing up to become ... what? The answer, when they found it, would be more dirt than dust.