It’s Lent, Again…
I have always loved Ash Wednesday, and for years I have been willing to happily embrace what some may describe as this morbidity in my theology. Maybe it’s the writer in me—I am drawn to metaphor and narrative that creates vivid portraits of life, words which capture the sacred and the absurd; words which describe the dramatic and the mundane; words which make human the sinner and the saint. Ash Wednesday is the one holy day which captures all of it.
The ashes are holy and they are a bit absurd.
Some folks come up for the imposition of ashes, and life has been dramatic for them—the dark cross represents the need for repentance and reconciliation after some profound pain. Others come forward as another in a series of mundane act in a steady, ordinary period of life. Maybe they have known the dramatic; perhaps they will experience the dramatic again—and as life goes, chances are, they will—but for now, for this moment of time, life is mundane; this Ash Wednesday ritual is mundane. That’s okay.
Sinners, myself included, will receive the ashes. Somewhere, among all of us sinners, God’s love will compel some to strive for the self-giving love of the saint. From the cross-crafted ashes, reflections of death, doves of resurrected hope and humanity will rise. I pray to be one of those.
While I have always loved Ash Wednesday so dearly, and the entirety of Lent, as well, I am feeling just a little shy around them this year. I have struggled with wanting, and being willing to bear those dark ashes again this year. I think I carry the ashes around too much, as it is. I think I have carried and made visible my own sense of shame and worthlessness enough, already in life.
I write, and I speak for myself, but I believe I am writing and speaking words felt with tears, by many others.
On this Ash Wednesday, I am trying to see Ash Wednesday anew. I am trying to re-imagine Ash Wednesday, and Lent, generally, in a new, different, but still orthodox way, for myself, and for the church folk I pastor. The weather has been crazy today in the Huntington area of West Virginia, where I live. Actually, today’s weather is really a microcosm of the weather for this entire winter. This morning, we experienced thunder, harsh winds, hard rains, and this afternoon…calm sunshine, a reassuring breeze with a hint of spring.
I want my perception of Ash Wednesday and Lent to move from reflecting the morning, to embodying the afternoon. I want the experience of Ash Wednesday that I offer my church to be calm, reassuring, hinting of spring and resurrection. We bear our ashes; we embody a sense of worthlessness; now it is time to move on to wholeness and holiness that a loving, resurrected Lord Jesus gives us.
Two teachers of mine, one past, and one present; two gifted souls of word and wisdom, have brought me to this crossroads in my journey of Ash Wednesday and Lent.
One is Dr. Amy Laura Hall. I was blessed to be one of her students at Duke, and in her new book Writing Home, With Love, Dr. Hall offers up poetic protest to Christian teaching and preaching which promotes austerity, and impoverishment of spirit and body, as good, holy things. They are not. God wants God’s children well-fed, well-clothed, with not only a sense, not only an awareness, but an absolute transformative way of being, embodying, love. This isn’t the Gospel of Prosperity Dr. Hall calls for. It’s The Gospel, of Christ’s love, which God means to be lived, and given, by us all.
The other teacher who points me in new directions this Ash Wednesday and Lent is Sr. Ginny Yeager, a Catholic nun from the Order of St. Joseph. I am her pupil in Clinical Pastoral Education. In a recent class, Sr. Ginny said to me, so simply: “Jeff, just stop. Stop haunting yourself with the past. You have atoned. You’ve learned from the past. Now walk in the present.
I am grateful for the lessons of both of these teachers.
Now, I am stretching out in heart, soul, and mind, to apply these lessons to Ash Wednesday, and Lent. As the good liturgical Methodist that I am, I use Joel and Matthew, the lections for Ash Wednesday, as my guide.
From Joel, I learn that all the people—all the children of God in Judah needed to take part in the worship and rituals of atonement—even the children, the infants, and the aged. This teaches me that human sin is both universal and collective, and the ashes I bear this night can represent the collected sin of a nation, a church, a world where people are abused, misused, and dehumanized. I will carry the stain of that sin because I do not carry it alone, and I must accept my part, as a human being, as a member of communities, and the community of humanity.
From Matthew, I learn that Jesus wants piety to truly be a holy act with a human being reaching up to God, to make right again, this most private and most basic of relationships. I need to say “I am sorry.” I need to accept forgiveness. With grace, I may then come out of my closet, and having been reconciled with God, I can seek reconciliation with my fellow human beings.
“From dust you were created, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
This year for Lent, I am giving up my too-long held habit of self-loathing and self-hatred.
This year for Lent, I am giving up wearing my ashes twenty-four/seven, three hundred sixty-five days year.
This year for Lent, I am taking up actually experiencing what those ashes, what this day, and what this season actually means: Christ’s love takes the ashes of human decay and death, and makes something beautiful: the cross. The cross points forever towards a tomb that is empty. I need to receive the cross of ashes today, and then wipe those ashes away, knowing that the Risen Christ has done, is doing, his work of love.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.