And why would it be? I mean, who would really want to come at an inconvenient hour in the middle of a busy week to have the pastor make the sign of the cross on your forehead in black soot and bless you with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Maybe? Maybe not.
Years ago, I almost lost my job over Ash Wednesday.
I was fresh out of seminary and swept up in the excitement of the liturgical revival that was introducing low-church Protestants, like me, into the wonder of all things ancient and traditional. (The very things that my ancestors had emptied the church of for fear that they were remotely “Catholic” or having the scent of “mystery”.) Things like Ash Wednesday.
Roman Catholics and High Church Episcopalians marked Ash Wednesday. In my New England church world in the United Church of Christ, we did not.
So when the Senior Pastor was away on vacation I took it upon myself to revive Ash Wednesday. I held a service complete with ashes that I gathered from my fireplace and marked on the foreheads of the tiny congregation that gathered at midday. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The senior pastor was none too pleased at his upstart associate when he returned.
But this year, it’s not me using Ash Wednesday to convert the church to an ancient ritual and way, it’s Ash Wednesday that is converting me.
It wasn’t reading about some new Ash Wednesday service or trying to decipher, once again, what T.S. Eliot is actually talking about in his poem “Ash Wednesday”. But it was going back to a novel I read last month that planted a question in me,
“What if Ash Wednesday were an invitation to see what we don’t want to see?”
Simon, rector at All Saints Parish, in K.D. Miller’s novel, All Saints, officiates at his tiny Anglican parish’s Ash Wednesday service. He reminds his congregation that we can begin Lent by receiving ashes and those stark words, “Remember you are dust…” as a reminder that our lifespan is limited. And he goes on,
“But we shouldn’t stop there. We need to go on and acknowledge the thing that most frightens us, most pains us. The thing we are must reluctant to face. It doesn’t have to be death, though it can be. It can be the need to confront someone and say, “You hurt me”. Which is the first step on the road to forgiveness. Or it can be the need to tell someone we love them. Whatever it is, I suggest you enter this season of Lent with the intention of saying, in effect, Ecce cor meum. Behold my heart.”
There are things in all of our hearts we don’t want to face. There certainly have been in mine. Our own Jerusalem’s. Our own coming to terms with what we need to pay attention to. The things we might want to cling to desperately, but in fact need to release, to “die” to, in order to risk the possibility of something more. Call it “resurrection”. Call it something on the other side of “this”. Some new life that we can’t, right here today, imagine finding our way to.
Years ago, I didn’t want to see, I didn’t want to know, what I knew. I didn’t want to face that in order to continue to grow, to mature, I needed to leave my relationship with Dave. A man I dearly loved. I needed to step out on my own and do some of the growing up work I had waited a long time to do. I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t want anything to change in a life that was full together of such goodness. I didn’t know what might happen. Where it all might lead. I was frightened. Indecisive. Full of trying to bury, to push away, what I didn’t want to see, didn’t want to face. To control what was beyond my controlling. Something was happening in me and I needed to pay attention to it. The hurt, I came to realize, was not so much in the leaving, but in the hurt that came from not paying attention to what I needed to see.
I needed Jesus. Yes, that one that is the story, and the one who makes this journey time and again with all of us on the way through death to the possibility of resurrection. Yes, Jesus, in the specific incarnate form of those who stood by my side, put their arm around me and said, “Together we can stand here. Together, I will hear you out, wait with you, until you are ready.”
A sailor’s job is to leave the dock. To untie the bow line and push the boat out into the channel and step aboard. To set a direction – that place you want to be – call it Hope, Joy, Peace, Justice, Life. A huge thing to kick off from what we have known. A huge thing to look out and set a Hope on where you are going – and not have a clue how you are going to get there.
But how we are going to exactly get there is not the sailor’s job. For what the sailor knows is that it takes this third thing – beside the sailor and the boat. Call it the Wind. Call it the Spirit. Call it the Breath of God. Only by tracking the Wind, playing with the Wind, using the Wind, trusting the wind, can the sailor tack and jibe the boat on its way toward that distant horizon.
To listen to our hearts. To face the thing we don’t want to face. Admit what we didn’t want to admit. To say the thing we don’t want to say. And then to reach down and untie the bow line. Give the boat a firm kick out into the channel and step aboard.
To set our faces to that far destination we might not even be able to give words to, but know from the feeling we have when we imagine we are there.
To put our hand lightly on the tiller. Find the direction of the wind. And then, using the wind, and letting the wind take us – back and forth, quickly and quietly, in still waters and sudden gusts as such a journey always is – but forward, ever forward, toward that place beyond our knowing where new life awaits.
It may take a long time. It may take detours and twists and turns we never could have envisioned. It might take more courage than we have ever risked taking before. And it might be more joyous as well. It might be the beginning of something new. The way to new life.
Perhaps, this is Ash Wednesday. Perhaps, this is Lent.