Ash Wednesday, 2007
Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite worship services of the Christian year. I know that’s dark, rather like saying I like bitter wine or funerals. Ash Wednesday is a time of confession. It’s also a harsh time. We dwell on our sin, we contemplate our mortality.
It’s got all the angst of a teenager watching a Fellini film after a break up. It’s like that line between Gomez and Morticia from the Addam’s Family. He asks her about the nature of her labor pains and she replies, “Exquisite.”
So why would I say this is among my favorite worship services? There are several reasons.
One is that I am able to experience the exquisite rush of forgiveness that only a follower of Jesus can know. Because of these moments wherein we identify with the atoning death of Jesus, I am transported over time and across space and beyond geography. In my soul I am with Christ in his suffering, and I see the wondrous love in his eyes. I bear witness to the power of the cross and the pain which Jesus endured so I might be able to stand before God, forgiven and free.
Another is that I learn better each Ash Wednesday how to mark my time on this planet. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall be returned,” says the minister when the ashes are imposed. When those grave words are uttered I feel my mortality, my finitude, and my finality. Man’s days are numbered, and they are fleeting. Ash Wednesday reminds me that each trip I take around the sun is a precious gift, and the people with whom I share the journey are equally precious. Ash Wednesday reminds me that each trip I take around the sun is pregnant with possibility and that without God can be barren of meaning. Ash Wednesday reminds me that each trip I take around the sun is mine to spend as I choose, so the ponderous weight of free choice presses down on my soul.
Another reason I like Ash Wednesday is unique to the office of pastor. As I impose the ashes I watch the face of each person. They all respond to this so differently. Some wish for eye contact with the minister, signaling something that seems like an assurance of the pardon I am promising from God. “Can this forgiveness be real?” their eyes question.
Still others look into the bowl of ashes and oil, contemplating who knows what? Their mortality? Their brokenness? Their breakfast?
Some approach the ashes dignified and somber, fully “in the moment” and steeping in the ritual and reality of the truth about the chasm between us and the lives of promise that God would lead us to if we’d only follow.
But all of these people remind me that what I like about Ash Wednesday is that we walk through our darkness and brokenness in community. Ash Wednesday reminds me that loneliness has its place in the Christian journey, but so does community. When I impose ashes on you it says, “You belong to this family. You belong to me. I belong to you. At our very core we see and say, “You’re not so different from me after all.””
Most of all, the reason I like Ash Wednesday is in the way it brings us to places of healing. It marks the beginning of Lent, a season of penitence, fasting, praying, and self-denying. Like the relief that comes from a lanced boil or wound, there is a painful letting and a powerful healing. Always, Ash Wednesday marks the doorway to Lent, which is the path to Easter. The older I get, the more convinced I become that the way of suffering, loss, and pain leads to deeper joy, gladness, and contentedness.
Once, my friend Lucinda told me that no minister was worth his salt unless he’d been through some suffering and loss. She said it helped the minister understand the pain of the persons for whom he cared. Not long after that, my mother passed away. And though it was not the first time I’d experienced grief, there was much pain because of the suddenness, and because of the state of my relationship with her.
It’s a kind of wounded light like we read of in Isaiah’s prophecy about Jesus:
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
And in 53.11 we read:
11 After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
Wounds that heal, suffering that brings light to life. I like that.
As I have healed over the years I’ve come to believe that Lucinda is correct. Suffering produces something in our lives that compares to nothing I know. Ash Wednesday calls us into the suffering of Christ, into the suffering of our world, and into the suffering heart of God.
And by going into these dark places we more clearly see goodness, justice, and mercy. By going into the dark places of death and despair we more clearly see the bright light of the resurrection story that will be told at the end of the journey we begin today.