Ashes and Water

Lent begins in dust and ash: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Many an Ash Wednesday I have left worship and gone into grocery stores or ridden public transportation with ashes on my forehead. When I next glance at myself in a restroom mirror, I quickly wipe off the smudge. The dust is met with water and washes clean away.

This small gesture anticipates the finale of Lent: a celebration of baptism on Easter. In some Christian traditions, people wishing to join the church are discipled during Lent. As we all turn again to self-denial in remembering Christ’s sacrifice, they join with us, learning the link between “disciple” and “discipline.” On Easter these new disciples are baptized and members are invited to “remember your baptism and be thankful.” The water is splashed into the font or shaken from the bough of a tree as people are invited to remember the work of the water in their lives.

Last summer I stood near the headwaters of the Colorado River. A sign, placed there by the fine people of Rocky Mountain National Park, informed me that while near the sign the Colorado looked only like a lovely mountain stream, this same river had dug the valley where I stood, and from that point it descended through Colorado to Arizona, where it had carved the awe-inspiring beauty of the Grand Canyon.

I looked down at the water sloshing along near my feet. I could have taken off my hiking boots and waded to the other side with no difficulty. The stream was eight feet across, and at its deepest point maybe a foot deep. I knelt next to the river and stuck in a hand. Cold. Clear. And now, with just a bit of me in it, swirling off to Arizona.

I looked at the valley surrounding me, home to elk and moose. I imagined the Grand Canyon. The consistent movement of water over time had resulted in these places. Moving water—living water in the Hebraic sense of the word—is what leads to change and to life. Stagnant water harbors disease. Even inland lakes need inflow and outflow for health.

Moving water, living water, is what John used to baptize people in the Jordan. Moving water was what Jesus claimed to be: “I am living water!”

Your baptism, it could be said, is the headwaters for your faith. Baptism is not just a time to remember what God has done for his people. It is not merely a symbol. In baptism, God acts. The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit may begin with the dripping of water on the head of the baptized one, but it does not end there. Like a mountain river it may start slow and small, but over time the water of baptism carves paths into our souls.

We may put our Lenten stock in self-discipline or strength of will, but these aren’t the only things that keep us on the straight and narrow. It is not in our own strength that we confide. The waters of baptism weave through our lives with the Holy Spirit charting the course, allowing us to avoid the major drop-offs and eddies—or at least survive them.

I sat with a group of Christians recently, and each of us was asked to recount our baptism. Few of us could do so from our own memories, as most of us had been baptized only weeks after birth. But all of us could trace the work of God in our lives since that sacramental day.

In the Reformed tradition, we don’t see baptism as salvific. Baptism alone does not save our souls; it is not a mile-marker on the journey of faith. Baptism isn’t merely our start, it is our source. It is the sacrament from which we spring, headlong and headfirst, into the life of faith.

This is due not only to the work of God in our lives, but also to the fact that baptism happens within a community of faith. We are baptized in the midst of people who promise to give aid to our parents and to give aid to us; to comfort, challenge, encourage, and convict. These are the ones who, along with us, give themselves over to the work of the Spirit in their lives and ours. These are the ones who will care for us from the nursery to the nursing home, through days of dust and ash and days of splashing life.

In this Lenten season, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Then remember your baptism, and be thankful.

Mary S. Hulst (mary.hulst@gmail.com) is Assistant Professor of Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is an ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.