Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

Tom Hoffmann

Ukraine. Enough said. You know what I’m talking about. Even at extreme distance from the conflict, Melburnians have been horrified by recent events.

There seems to be a heaviness even in pleasant conversations due to the peripheral presence of a global tragedy unfolding. But for those with close personal ties to the region it has been particularly difficult.

On the first Sunday after the invasion had began, St Johns welcomed visitors, both Ukrainian and Russian, who simply felt the need to come to church, to stop and think and pray amid the swirl of emotions.

After the pause of Sunday, though, life goes on. Those Ukrainian and Russian visitors, along with the rest of us, go back to the busyness of our lives. That’s not to say that having to soldier on, marching along on the treadmill of life in the face of indescribable suffering isn’t troubling. It is! It can be very difficult to come to terms with, psychologically and spiritually. But there are things that can help us on the journey.

Wednesday, March 2 was Ash Wednesday, which begins the liturgical season of Lent. This season is rather solemn in its character, in that it encourages the Christian to journey with Christ on the way of suffering and death – the way of the cross. It is generally commenced with what’s called the “Imposition of Ashes” – worshippers being marked on the forehead with an ashen cross. During this rite, the individual coming forward will have just heard the words, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” which recalls those familiar funeral utterances. But taking it further then, the minister says to the worshipper being marked, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” It’s rather counter-cultural, you’d have to admit, to make a ritual out of something that, on the face (or forehead) of it seems anything but life affirming. Why would anyone want to be a part of something that’s such a downer?

I would argue that looking at it that way is to consider it from a position of privilege. The fact is, as we are seeing in Ukraine, life is full of mortal hardships, some of which are no fault of our own and which we are powerless to avoid. But the good news of the ashen cross is that God has been there, and that the risen Jesus is proof that life can go on, even in hopeful ways.

On the first weekend of the war in Ukraine, Andrey and Nadya, having been displaced from their home in Kyiv due to the barrage of missile fire, exchanged wedding vows at a church in the regional city of Svitlovods’k. Did their wedding take place with heads hung in mourning? No! It was a great celebration in spite of the horrors of war. We may all be headed to the final destination of dust and ash, but that’s just reality. Life and love go on, and these things are just as real.

At another church in regional Ukraine, the congregation worshipped together on the Sunday – having their spiritual wounds bound in Christian communion – and then for the rest of the day they were trained in administering first aid so that they might help others with the physical wounds that may come. The ash of war and the dust of death were on their doorstep. They still gathered together, though. They made sure not to get lost in a downward spiral of heavy-heartedness, but rather set their compass by the cross. They chose the path, hard and dark as it may be, of joyful service and self-sacrifice. The people of that congregation trust, ultimately, that the Light of the World will shine through any dust and ash that may envelope their nation, their city, their town or their families. They, quite obviously, don’t need an Ash Wednesday forehead cross to signify that.

May your Lenten season be one that brings to mind the truth that while hard and tragic circumstances abound, from dust and ash green shoots can rise, and they most certainly will •

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