Maybe every congregation where I’ve been pastor has not really been into Ash Wednesday.
Maybe the human community is not into Ash Wednesday. I don’t know. You tell me.
What I know is that the twin themes of Ash Wednesday — repentance and mortality — are not on the top 10 list of things that we pay attention to.
In bible class yesterday we spent a lot of time on the reading for the first Sunday in Lent, the story from Genesis 3 that the church has traditionally referred to as The Fall. The church has spent way too much energy trying to use this story as an explanation for the how evil came into the world. I don’t think that’s really what it is.
Characteristic of the Hebrew scriptures, the text is not interested in explanations; it’s more attuned to a mystery at the heart of human existence. The story offers us a touch point to that thing we all know in our bones. We possess an inclination to yearn for what is beyond us. We bristle at limitations. In trying to make the move from creature to creator, we transgress the divinely established boundaries that were graciously established to give us life. Instead of life, we barter in the ways of death. By our own behavior, by giving in to our deep-seated, but misguided yearnings, we distort and inevitably destroy the gracious relationship that God created and still desires to have with us.
“I’m sorry.” That’s what repentance is. “I’ve done wrong, and I’ve got no excuses.” That’s it. Well, that and a commitment to go in a different direction. It’s not that complicated. That it’s simple doesn’t mean that it’s easy. I still wonder why it’s so hard to acknowledge that we have done wrong and are in need of a change of direction. I wonder that in my own heart. So, Ash Wednesday. I am wrong. I need a change of direction. Not one that finds the initiative in my own heart. One that by definition needs to come from outside me.
Which is why the ashes that are placed on my forehead is in the shape of a cross. Only the death and resurrection of the Son of God is able to enact that reality that I cannot. The death that I keep on choosing through my ten thousand acts of rebellion are reversed in his death and resurrection. The Ash Wednesday reversal calls us to that life.
Paradoxically, the ashen cross also confronts us with our mortality.
I remember a day in the life of a pastor when I talked by phone with the spouse of a 93 year old who had been diagnosed with a not necessarily fatal form of cancer. “I just hope (s)he’s strong enough to endure the treatment.” The assumption was that if (s)he is not strong enough, the alternative was death.
A few hours later, I made a hospital visit to someone who had been in and out of the hospital for a few months, never with a diagnosis that in and of itself would be alarming. On the day of my visit, the diagnosis came that signals the end. Neither (s)he nor anyone else in their circle of family or friends could change that. We all know we are going to die. (S)he knew that it was going to happen in the next few months. And so it did.
I sometimes marvel at the clever and creative ways our culture denies the reality of death. Despite the fact that we all know that none of us is going to get out of this alive.
I read once that in medieval times, the work of the local parish priest was to prepare his parishioners to die. Ars morendi, I think they called it. The art of dying. On the one hand, I suppose death was much more a reality in those times than it is for us. Lack of understanding, and therefore treatment, of illness and disease made life expectancies much shorter. On the other hand, the mortality rate for humans is still 100%.
I think Ash Wednesday is one small and useful step on the way to confronting the reality of our own death and to embrace it. I don’t know that any of us are looking forward to that day in the same way that we look forward to a visit from someone we deeply love. Yet, I also believe that we don’t need to dread it or deny it. If the central tenet of our faith is true— that in Christ’s death and resurrection, the Last Enemy has been vanquished — then there’s no good reason for denial or fear. Because we bear the hope that comes from the promise, we live these meantime days to their fullest.
So, that ashen cross. And the words spoken along with the gesture, “Remember that you are dust; to dust you shall return.” Indeed they are words that express the reality of human life. And the ashen cross inscribed on our foreheads sears on our bodies and our being the hope that is in us. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
Here’s to life that springs from the ashes.