Post Author: Shannon E. Sullivan
Our fifth frozen embryo transfer (FET) was on Ash Wednesday last year.
Our first pregnancy ended on an Ash Wednesday three years before that. In between those experiences, Lent became a time not for deepening my connection with God but to try and wrangle my body into pregnancy through fertility treatments. I did not know if this last transfer then was ominous or an opportunity for redemption.
The senior pastor I worked with took care of everything that Ash Wednesday. I didn’t have to scramble to write notes for someone else to preach from as I did three years before while bleeding and cramping and crying. I didn’t just go to worship and sit on a stool to preach because I was so uncomfortable in preparation for an egg retrieval as I did two years before. I wasn’t meticulously planning my days around food, shots, and yoga as I was just one year before on Ash Wednesday. I had wanted then to be healthy and give myself the best opportunity to get pregnant, and I found out on the last day of that Lent that I was pregnant, only to miscarry again.
Lent, the season of forty days before Easter beginning with Ash Wednesday, should be a season of preparing our hearts for resurrection, of looking at our lives to see what we need to change to draw closer to God, of spending time in contemplation and prayer and discernment. Instead, for me, it has become a desperate struggle to keep believing resurrection is possible at all. It has been a desperate struggle to make meaning of the phrase from dust we are and to dust we return, instead of finding it a truth of the vast emptiness of my life.
Without a congregation to preach to, without ashes to affix to my own head, I murmured to myself throughout that Ash Wednesday last year: From dust you are, and to dust you shall return. These are the words we use when we dip our fingers into ashes, those burned bits of something that was once alive mixed with a bit of oil, and make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of our siblings in Christ on Ash Wednesday. We recite the words from the second story of creation in the Bible, where God creates humanity from the dirt, from dust, and breathes into it to give us life. We use the language to point to another common saying recited at funerals: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The tradition of putting ashes on one’s head is mentioned throughout the Bible as a sign of both repentance and mourning. Tamar puts ashes on her head and tears her clothes after her brother rapes her. Mordecai puts ashes on his head and wails when he learns of the death to befall the Jews at Haman’s hands. Job sits in ashes after he has lost everything. The Ninevites put ash on their heads when Jonah tells them that God will kill them all. Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel all speak of wearing sackcloth and ashes as both signs of mourning and signs of repentance. When those stories come up, the ash isn’t explained, not really. Perhaps it is self-destructive: we hate our lives in the wake of loss, we hate our bodies after experiencing violence, we hate ourselves when we recognize the depth of our sin, and so the itch and discomfort of sackcloth and ashes are nothing to us. But perhaps it is a reminder, as the words of the Ash Wednesday ritual point to, that as creation dies and becomes ash, so we will die and become dust. We are mortal, God is not. Therefore our mourning and pain are not the end of the story, even if it feels that way to us, our sin is not the end of the story, even if it seems impossible to imagine our way out of it. From dust you are, to dust you shall return. You are a swirl of dust in the middle of a story much larger than yourself.
Bones seem a pretty final end to the story, especially ones dry enough to crumble into dust. That’s what I felt like on Ash Wednesday last year. Dry bones. Dust. But even scripture has a story about life breathing back into dry bones in Ezekiel 37:1-14. Israel, we learn from this passage is like the dried up bones, completely without hope for redemption or salvation. But just because we don’t have hope doesn’t mean God no longer has hope. “Can these bones live?” God asked Ezekiel. Ezekiel wasn’t sure, but God told him to prophesy to the breath, and he did, and the bones became bodies and breath came into them and they lived.
If God asked me if dry bones could live, I would have flat out said no. Absolutely not. After so many years of infertility and loss, I felt like a dried up husk of the person I once was. But last Ash Wednesday, there I was, feet sprawled apart under exam room lights, waiting yet again for someone to prophesy to the breath. I had no hope, but I was going through the motions anyway.
And that Ash Wednesday life breathed into me. But it wasn’t just the life of an embryo taking hold within me, it was also a commitment within myself to work with God to find new life. Instead of waiting for a miracle, I sought out God to change my life. That Lent I took time to reconnect with God, reading daily devotions but also reading joyful works of fiction. When I had terrible days, I reached out to friends who gave me words to pray. I made time to discern what was next, applying to programs that I thought would be life-giving and working with my church to change my job description. I began to believe that my grief, my dustiness, wasn’t the end of the story, even if I never had a baby.
But I did. That embryo stuck this time and grew into a baby who was born just before Advent. And so as I come to this Ash Wednesday with an infant, four years after that first loss, I am remembering what God can do with dust. I am again seeking a Lenten season of reconnection and discernment, of prayer and deep breathing. I don’t feel so dry and dusty anymore, but I know God is still breathing into me, still calling me into ever more abundant life, into resurrection.
May the ashes of our grieving be the soil of our growing, we clergy proclaim as we impose ashes. I haven’t always believed that to be possible. I probably won’t always believe it to be possible. But if I keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep working with God to find the good I can, I know God can do amazing things with dust.
Rev. Shannon E. Sullivan (she/her/hers) is a life-long feminist and United Methodist currently serving the community of Frederick, Maryland, as the associate pastor of Calvary. She is a proud graduate of Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. She is married to Aaron Harrington, her high school sweetheart, who is a pilot and all around aviation geek. After a long journey of loss and infertility, they now have a child named Zeke, who is settling into a home filled with cats, a boxer puppy, and chickens in addition to mountains of books and airplane parts. When they are able, they travel and find that their favorite adventures are usually unplanned.