Elena grew up in a beautiful wooded cultural town of 50,000 people in Eastern Europe, enjoying sunrises and starry clear skies. She was very excited when city leaders announced the creation of an amusement park—after a few months of construction, a giant circular structure with yellow enclosed seats arose from the ground, the carnival-like lights brightening the night–the first Ferris wheel Elena not only saw, but would also would ride.
However, four days before the long awaited grand opening, warnings echoed one of the most significant books of the entire Bible to our time—the book of Joel. The prophet Joel brings a message that is truly a matter of life or death to the people of Judah, much like the alarms sounding to the engineers on April 26th, 1986. As the final safety precautions on the Ferris wheel were tested nearby, two nuclear engineers ignored six alarms as they conducted experiments to see how long the turbines would turn once powered off. Those alarms were a matter of life and death to the people of Pripyat, home to a nuclear power plant named Chernobyl, where thirty years later an abandoned community now remains covered in ash. I’ve lived in the shadows of the Indian Point, Harris, and Three Mile Island Nuclear Power plants, where much like tornado sirens, alarm systems would sound and remind us to ensure we knew where our Potassium Iodide pills were—in case of radiation leaks we were supposed to ingest a few pills. Every time those sirens went off, I was reminded of the temporary nature of life. Living near a nuclear power plant is like living in the shadow of death.
Ash Wednesday, to me, is like an alarm reminding me of the promise I made at my baptism to serve as Christ’s representative in the world. And it is a reminder to, “Remember that we are dust of the earth and stardust of the heavens, and to dust we shall return.”
Ash Wednesday we confront the great myth formed in the past few centuries that death is to be avoided. Sometimes, I think writers like Anne Rice are on to something—she wrote, “Interview with a Vampire” when her daughter died of leukemia. She was an atheist, and saw the immortality of vampires as a metaphor for our human condition. Our culture goes to great lengths to mask the reality of mortality. And in the American culture, the way we invoke justice on criminals we may succumb to associating death with a manipulative punitive tone.
Our narrative we embrace about death has a profound effect on our life. The way we relate to others. The way we experience God. Our narrative we embrace about sin also has a profound effect on our life. Theologian Karl Barth once said that only Christians sin. I think he meant that without an understanding of sin, a theology of forgiveness, grace and mercy are diluted.
In life, I have come to realize that my understanding of sin has changed. The more I experience the forgiveness, grace, and mercy of God, the more I realize the tremendous love God has for me as a sinner. I am reminded of it when I drive through North Omaha, realizing that I have little connection there. I am reminded of it when someone approaches me for money, for I do not give all I have. I am reminded of it when I drink a glass of water knowing that others are dying of dehydration. I am reminded of it when I walk into a warm home, knowing of the many homeless who go to sleep wondering if they will freeze to death.
So what to do? Today starts our journey towards Easter, and we think about our Christian birth, baptism, and how life and death help define one another.
The prophet Joel and words of our baptism provide some direction. Do not forget. Remember. Break away from the comfortable myth that death and sin are unmentionables. Embrace the reality that death and sin bring meaning to life and forgiveness. Embrace the journey towards Easter and then you will encounter forgiveness, grace, and mercy. Remember, for we have forgotten our narrative of baptism. I think when we forget or neglect our mortality, then we lose track of our purpose. Have you ever felt that you were called to a time and a place for a Divine response?
As we remember, we face our true selves, and discern our life’s passion. And often we do not respond because we are afraid. The smeared cross on our forehead is an incarnational reminder to help us confront our fears with the support of a faith community. We are reminded of our human-ness, and we journey with Jesus into the desert of Lent to remember. To remember we are made in God’s image and are a treasure. To remember that out of the darkness shines the hope of our Creator and that we are free to love ourselves, to love God, to love one another, to love our enemies.
We enter the desert not wanting to get hungry, thirsty, or lost—but what if we become fed by God’s love, hydrated by God’s mercy, and found in the beauty of God’s forgiveness? What if during our Lenten journey we realize what God calls us to do, or not do?
Almost three years ago, I had a dream about the trajectory our country was following, and there was a liberator, a woman from Ukraine named Elena who helped America see the futility of our addiction to military power. It was a powerful dream and I’ve felt a purpose to write Elena’s story, but for two years have been afraid to respond to God’s invitation to complete her journey—orphaned by the disaster at Chernobyl, she is transformed by the ashes and rises to forgive in order to rewrite the narrative where death is not to be feared, but understood as a new beginning, like baptism. This Lenten journey, remembering the dream, remembering my baptismal vow, I ask for God’s leading to finish Elena’s story of ashes transformed.