Love that can bring even ash to life

You are the God of the dust that we were,
the God of the dust we will become,
the God of the breath that brings this dust to life.*

Tomorrow at 7.30pm we will mark Ash Wednesday with a new service set around the labyrinth.

Previously, we have met inside using the standard prayers, scripture selections and liturgies shared by the wider church. These texts focus heavily on the individual penitent’s Lenten journey towards the cross. But over the years I have become increasingly dissatisfied; and a major rupture occurred when I learned that some of the standard prayers used in this service were historically the penitential prayers of murderers.

Then I thought about how the recommended Psalm 51 is attributed to David, who was feeling penitential after abducting and raping Bathsheba and arranging for the battlefield slaughter of her husband, Uriah. While I am personally willing to pray this psalm from time to time, I reflected on the power dynamics of a traditionally all-male priesthood insisting that all people, including all women, pray the full psalm every year with breast-beating sincerity.

I began wondering why we were going on about personal dreadfulness, particularly the sins of the male gaze and male violence, yet barely alluding to corporate sin, the climate crisis or God’s passionate commitment to the beyond-human creation.

So I took a closer look at the Joel reading. The selection is about penitence and fasting, and to our modern mindset can easily sound like individual repentance for moral sin. Yet the book of Joel was composed in response to a locust plague, which destroyed crops and threatened human lives with famine; and this plague was understood as a response to human sin. So the reading is a call to the whole community to join together and turn back to God, in the hope God will avert the plague.

I noticed, too, that the recommended selection stops short of God’s words of assurance to the beyond-human creation. Whatever happens, says God, the wilderness will continue to be fruitful. In other words, humans watch out! But the broader creation will continue to flourish one way or another. In the midst of our own global environmental catastrophe, which is caused by human sin and which requires large-scale corporate response, these are words, warnings and even a mixed hope we desperately need to hear.

So the liturgy has had a full refresh: less individual penitence, and more creation-centredness; less formal prayers, and more silence; less flagellation, and more of God’s promises to integrate Christ with us and heaven with this good earth. There’s still clear acknowledgement of personal sin, but it’s anchored in our corporate identity and our deep belonging to the earth as we walk towards the cross.

Meeting outside means the wind, the birds, the trees, the sky and the heat will all contribute to the service. There will be time to walk around the labyrinth, as well as an opportunity to be marked with the cross in ashes. This mark is a sign of repentance, and is also a physical reminder that we are made from dust, and will return to dust, earth’s children that we are.

Ash Wednesday is also the day when we formally kick off our Lent readings which are, of course, about being embodied earth creatures forming faith in real local places. I’m hugely excited by the stunning, beautiful, thoughtful, vulnerable reflections we’ve received this year. They will be published day-by-day over Lent to our website: so stay posted!


Emailed to Sanctuary 21 February 2023, extended 22 February 2023 © Sanctuary, 2023. Title and ‘You are the God’ adapted from a prayer by the Corrymeela Community, found here (scroll down). Photo by Christian Bass on Unsplash. Sanctuary is based on Peek Whurrong country. Acknowledgement of country here

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