The Mandala of Ash Wednesday–A Reflection for Lent

Ash Wednesday, 2023

Stuart Higginbotham

Lately, I haven’t been writing out my sermons, but it has helped me this year to focus my thoughts more as we enter into this Lenten Season. Lent is a deeply meaningful time of the year, an ancient pattern in the wider Christian community, and it feels even more powerful to me this year. I am paying attention: to my ministry here at your rector, to my vocation as a priest, to my life as a husband, a father, and a human being sharing the planet at this point in time. I believe this is a time to pay closer attention, and this particular day challenges us to do that, this beginning day of the forty-day Lenten observance, even when so much in our wider world tries to distract us and lure us with the superficial. 

Leading up to today, as I sat in my morning meditation times, I remembered an event with our daughter when she was around four years old. His Holiness the Dalai Lama had returned to Atlanta to give a series of teachings at Emory. Another major teacher had also come to share in a special service at the monastery near Oglethorpe University. I believe it was Trulshik Rinpoche. I had worked with the monks at Drepung Monastery, and Lisa and I took Evelyn there to share in this special service which would feature the dismantling of the beautiful mandala made of colored sand. 

The monks had spent days slowly pouring the intricate lines of sand into a complex series of shapes, and now Rinpoche presided over the special service to sweep all the sand away, to gather the dust into a pile and disperse it–a powerful lesson on impermanence. 

As we sat there listening to the chants, Evelyn suddenly crawled out of our laps and walked slowly up the main aisle. She had already seen the mandala when we arrived, and we knew she loved the colors and shapes. Now, she was drawn closer to watch them sweep all the dust away. We watched her walk up to the circle of monks and stand there, silently, paying attention. 

I was afraid that she would be upset that they were destroying the beautiful work of art. I could just imagine her starting to cry or loudly saying “Stop!” But she just stood there alongside the monks, silently watching.

After a couple minutes, I guess, she slowly walked back to us and crawled in my lap. She looked at me with focused eyes and said, “Daddy, they’re cooperating.” She was just transfixed by this entire experience. They finished the ritual and shared with us that, rather than pouring all the sand into a nearby river as they normally would, they would disperse the sand among all of us in small bags. Our flowing lives would be, in effect, the river–a beautiful image in itself. Of course, as soon as the service was over, Evelyn made her way up to a young monk to get a bag of this colored dust that I have kept in my office for twelve years now. 

Evelyn’s brush with impermanence at age four somehow sparked this deeper experience of “cooperating.” She noticed that this awareness of impermanence somehow brought them together more closely. 

This Ash Wednesday, I ask myself, “What does my own brush with impermanence invite me to see?” What does this year’s reminder of my humanity challenge me to see about myself? About our community and world? About how God moves and works in my life and in all our lives together?

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we will say in just a few moments as we each come forward to share in this ritual of impermanence. In other words, “Remember that it is impossible to grasp onto any moment in life and control it.” Or “Remember that life changes and we grow older and we learn–often the hard say–what is really important.” Or “Remember that so many of the things that we think give life meaning are actually superficial and illusions.” 

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

These are hard lessons to learn in a culture that is absolutely obsessed with grasping as much power and control as possible and holding onto it. In a world where it seems we have to fight to accomplish and succeed, here we gather to step into this season that, of all things, challenges us to release our grasping and attachment. 

How long do we construct frameworks around ourselves, building and forming images and personas and carefully-curated presentations only to see them swept away? The Buddhist monks actually create a ritual to celebrate the reality of impermanence. We avoid it at all costs, it seems, until we can’t run from it any longer.

Last Sunday we explored the Transfiguration story when, after encountering the life-altering moment of Jesus’ brightness, Peter had the great idea of constructing a dwelling to somehow capture and house the energy of that transforming experience. 

“Let us build three dwellings.” Here we have grasping and attachment.

“Remember you are dust.” Here we have the challenge to release our grasping and fixation on control. 

And, here lies a key tension of our human existence in so many ways: we are called to live our lives fully and celebrate our agency with God in this world, even as we are called to be aware of the limits of our basic humanness. Even our name “human” derives from a six-thousand year-old root word for the earth to which we will return one day–and of which we are always a part. We can never go far from the truth, however much we want to add on layers of sparkle. 

I think it is important to emphasize that the main point of Ash Wednesday is not to focus on our “wretched sinfulness,” as it were. At least to speak for myself, this is not what I learn from the observance. On one hand, it is easy to focus on such wretchedness with the readings and such. And don’t get me wrong, maybe we could be a bit more of our sinfulness, from a Christian point of view, paying attention to the way we hurt others and ourselves through our pride and greed. 

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

“We confess that we have sinned against you by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” Sins of commission and omission, as we say.

Yes, perhaps such a notion of sin from a Christian point of view is a reality that we need to pay more attention to, I think. We need to stop shying away from naming the sins in our lives and the sinful actions of our broader culture. (In other words we need to live more consciously). But Ash Wednesday is even more than this. This observance invites us to actually look underneath such an awareness of such actions to the root tension, if you will, of human existence. 

I don’t think Ash Wednesday–or Lent for that matter–is about some hyper focus on the particular, or the punctilious, the fastidious or a sense of scrupulosity (which, aren’t those fun words?). Ash Wednesday challenges us to look toward the deeper dynamic we have with grasping and attachment. What we do today challenges us to release our fixation on control and nurture this awareness of Christ’s own transforming Spirit who “blows where it will,” as the text says. The sand is swept up and flows where it will in the river.

We are re-grounded on this day, with marks of dust placed on our foreheads as a sign of who we really are–but often prefer to deny. When we remember that the ashes we use here come from the burnt palm branches that we used to celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem last Palm Sunday, the meaning becomes palpable. That moment of celebration didn’t last. 

I believe that Ash Wednesday highlights our tendency to grasp, to attach onto our own agendas and ambitions rather than trusting in the Spirit’s guidance.  And, when we do this, when we share consciously in this deeper practice, a sort of spiritual alchemy takes place in our hearts and our lives are transformed. If even for a brief moment, we become aware that our lives are not dependent on grasping or attachment. We catch a glimpse of a life of wholeness freed from the incessant drive for success or accomplishment that exhausts us. We come to rest in a deeper trust–yes, that’s the word we are looking for–trust that there is a depth of life that holds us. Trust.

We learn to trust in the Spirit’s presence, and that just may be the greatest gift that a full observance of Lent offers. Isn’t that wonderful?

One thought on “The Mandala of Ash Wednesday–A Reflection for Lent

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  1. Dear Stuart, Thank you for this meditation and Evelyn’s lovely reflection on the moment the mandala was swept away. It is a wonderful way to enter into Ash Wednesday. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with this day and your meditation has helped me reframe it. I’m grateful for these reminders to pause, reframe what we are seeing, doing, thinking as an individual, as a community, and within our cosmic arena.

    A scientist friend of mine from Bolivia has been sending me some videos lately – of a storm blowing in over the Andes, ending with a rainbow. 3 guys who were camping and recorded it (they were ecstatic to witness such a thing!) – and another video he sent was of the slow formation of a new ocean in Africa. I’m reminded of Chardin’s words – trust in the slow work of God – and to pull my attention away from the noise of the moment and toward the glorious wonders of each moment as each moment evolves into something always new.

    Thank you for the invitation to join the class last Sunday. Wonderful to meet these new people! I also loved your invitation during the worship service to move more deeply into the songs, scripture, liturgy with a pencil. It was a lovely meditation practice. I’m playing with a poem from the words and phrases I circled.

    With deep gratitude, en Cristo, Debbie


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