Kurt Vonnegut once described human beings as “sitting up mud.” “The word humility comes from hummus, which means earth or mud. To be ‘humble’ is to feel ourselves as part of the earth—made from dust, returning from dust. The Hebrew creation story says God created humans by mixing dust and spirit.”
Today on Ash Wednesday, at the very beginning of the Lenten season, we affirm this humbling paradox.
Does the human spirit even MIX with dust, with dirt, with ashes? We are challenged to find out ways both to humble ourselves AND to take action in the world.
The original period of Lent was 40 hours, to be spent in fasting to identify with the suffering of Christ. Then it became 30 days, then 36, and finally, in the reign of Charlemagne, about A. D. 800, it grew to 40 days, not including Sundays.
The 40 days that we commemorate in the Lenten season are to correspond to Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness. They typically involve giving up something we care about, or taking on a special spiritual discipline.
How can we even compare our temporarily inconveniencing ourselves—to Jesus’ total trust in life and death?
But it is good that we do have a pattern and a plan laid out for Lent each year—one that we follow faithfully, or maybe not so carefully—but that we intend to make our own.
A story is told of how once upon a time in ancient China, the people at a village received orders from the regional governor to build a shrine for the emperor. If they could meet the deadline, the governor would reward them handsomely.
The chosen location for the shrine had a well, so they needed to fill it up before construction could take place. They brought in a donkey to transport piles of sand and mud for that purpose.
But—an accident occurred. The donkey got too close to the exposed well, lost his footing, and fell into it. The villagers tried to lift him out but could not. After many failed attempts, they realized it would take too long to rescue him.
Keeping the deadline in mind, the villagers decided to sacrifice the donkey. They proceeded to shovel sand and mud into the well, thinking they had no choice but to bury him alive.
When the donkey realized what they were doing, he began to wail pitifully. The villagers heard him but ignored him. The value of one donkey wasn’t much compared to the rewards they expected to get, so they continued to shovel.
After a while, the wailing in the well stopped. The villagers wondered about this. Was the donkey dead already? Or had he just given up? What was going on?
Curious, they bent over and looked into the well. A surprising sight greeted them. The donkey was alive and well. When the mud and sand rained down on him, he had shrugged it off, and then stamped around until the dirt was tightly packed below him. This formed solid ground that lifted him a bit higher each time.
Eventually, the donkey got high enough inside the well. With one powerful leap, he jumped out of it. Amazed, the villagers watched as he trotted off with his head held high.
Even dust and mud can become building blocks of life.
And so … even in this holy season, let’s not take ourselves too seriously.
Teresa of Avila wrote: “We should not attach much value to what we have given God, since we shall receive for the little we have bestowed on Him much more in this life and in the next.”
Lent gives us an opportunity to think about what we are (and aren’t) as humans. At the very least we can move intentionally toward seeking God in our choices and actions.
And so, in this season that begins with ashes and ends with alleluias, let us—above all—choose to be awake to these possibilities.
Isabel Anders is the editor for 40-Day Journey with Madeleine L’Engle, which is often used for Lenten study.