To be human is a difficult thing. Perhaps this is a striking statement for a human being to say, but I think it is true. I honestly believe that to be fully human is the most difficult thing that we face. To be fully human is to be fully in touch with everything that we are and everything we are not. To be fully human. It is a difficult thing indeed.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, particularly in this modern age in which it seems that we are all supposed to be something other than human, is to recognize precisely what it means to be human. On the one hand, it means that we are made in the image of God. We are spoken into being by God to be precisely what we are, and I think that it is also the very thing that poses the ultimate challenge for us as creatures. To take being made in the image of God seriously means that we have to recognize that who we are is what God intended to speak into being. It means that we have to find the strength to be exactly who we are as God created us, and it means that we have to find the strength to be more than just okay with that. It means that we are asked to find the strength to be happy with who God speaks into being each and every day of our lives.
On the other hand, being fully human is also to recognize the ways in which we are not perfect in the way that we live our lives in the every day. Being fully human is working up the courage to face the ways that we blunder about from day to day. It is taking the time to reflect upon the ways in which we fall short of perfection, and it is taking the time to recognize that the blunders of the every day are simply part of what it means to be a human being – even if that is also recognizing that we may never know what it means to be fully human. Or perhaps there is something else going on. Perhaps the reality is that God recognizes that we are going to make mistakes; perhaps God knows that we are going to have blunders over the course of our lives; perhaps God knows that we are not going to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
Every year on Ash Wednesday and, if I am being honest, on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, I begin to think about the ways in which I have fallen short of being completely faithful to God. I begin to reflect on the ways in which I failed to love my neighbor as myself, and I begin to think of the ways in which I could have used the gifts that God has granted to me to serve others more fully. I think about the times that I have said something that hurt another person; I think about the times that I failed to recognize the beauty of another in the way that God sees the beauty of that very same person. I think about the times that I have not simply taken the time to listen to the story of a friend, a colleague, or a stranger, and I think about how my life is diminished because I failed to hear that story or to ask the next question. I think about the times that I forgot to be vulnerable not only with my friends but also with God.
As I think these things over and as I make up my mind to do better over the course of the next year, I find myself looking at Ash Wednesday square in the face.
The wonderful thing about Ash Wednesday is that I am reminded that it is not up to me to be fully human. To be fully human is not something that I can ever achieve except in one very particular and surprising truth. In order for me to be fully human, I have to remember that I am not the only human being on this planet. I am not the only one that is created from dust, and I am not the only that is going to return to dust. Instead, I am one of many members graced with a diversity of gifts. I am reminded that I am called to be in relationship with others and that I am called to marvel in the ways that God speaks beauty into creation when I pause long enough to recognize the gifts of those that surround me. I am reminded that I can only be fully human by listening to a person that has a love for sports even though I really am not all that interested in the topic. I become fully human when I pause long enough to witness the tears of another because they witnessed someone being treated less than. I become fully human when I see the light of someone’s eyes light up when they talk about children’s literature, and I become fully human when I stop long enough to listen to the music of musicians in a most surprising space.
I am able to become fully human not simply by stopping to listen to these different interests or stories that surround me. I become fully human when I recognize that I have learned something about being human BECAUSE I listened to the beauty of a fellow human being, a fellow child of God, a fellow creature of dust.
The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that I am reminded of all of these things when I turn towards God in repentance in order to ask for God’s forgiveness for failing to do these things on a regular basis. The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it gives me the opportunity to practice what it really means to be in relationship with another person and with God. As I turn back towards God, I find myself kneeling to confess the many ways in which I failed to do all of these things, and I slowly begin to recognize that I am not kneeling because of my failure. I am kneeling because of the response that I feel coming from God. The response that I feel is the response of love. It is the warmth of an old patch-work quilt wrapped around me on a cold winter’s day. It is the warmth of a cup of hot chocolate with a multitude of marshmallows floating on top. It is the warmth of a human connection that I find in a hug. As I kneel down to repent on Ash Wednesday, I feel God’s love washing over me, and I feel God welcoming me back into God’s presence. The beauty of Ash Wednesday is found in being repentant, but the beauty of repentance is that I am learning a little bit more about what it means to be human. I am learning that the image of God is not only me. The image of God is found in me and in every other human being that is around me. The beauty of Ash Wednesday is found in the fact that I am kneeling because it is the only thing that I can do in response to the love that God showers down upon me. That response is what brings me to my knees because I am overwhelmed to that point that I have reached the edge of words, and the only way that I can communicate is through action.
And as I kneel, I begin to understand the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is a liturgy for life. It is a liturgy that allows us to practice the one thing that allows us to remain in relationship with another. The liturgy invites us into the practice of repentance; the liturgy invites us into the practice of forgiveness. The liturgy invites us into becoming the fullness of the imago dei.