I believed in Ash Wednesday before I was sure I believed in God.
I was a graduate student studying modern literature in a rigorously secular Department of English, surrounded by friends, few of whom were believers, and nearly all of whom were unhappy. I was doing a good deal of intellectual wrestling with my faith, and I was also trying to sort through where the rest of my life was headed.
One afternoon I decided to stop by the Ash Wednesday service at the university Episcopal church, not recalling much about the service except that it had something to do with ashes.
And I remember even now the power of the moment when I walked up to the front and a priest rubbed ashes into my forehead and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I was overwhelmed by the sheer raw truthfulness of that act. It came crashing home—I am finite, fragile, a creature who has been given these few short years to live. My agonizing about exactly what I believed seemed less pressing; my anxieties about where my life was going seemed a waste of time. I have been given this time now, I realized, before I return to dust, to be what I have been given to be. I was amazed by the power of a church service to tell me the truth about my life.
It was not a particularly theological experience, at least in any obvious sense. I wasn’ t aware of God at the time. But it was profoundly spiritual. I found the church telling me what we usually learn only in crisis times of tragedy or loss—that most of the things we obsess over, and exhaust ourselves with, get furious about, and lose sleep over are secondary. They are the chess pieces we anxiously move around, forgetting all the while that the whole board has been given to us.
And I found the church telling me that there was nothing in the world more freeing than giving up my fantasies of immortality—the notion that I have to create my eternal worth, I have to prove myself to myself, to make my mark. “Remember that you are dust.” You’ re a creature—made, limited, free.
The ashes rubbed on our foreheads this evening are our encounter with death and dust. To have a close scrape with death is to breathe more deeply, to know you are free.
That is why I think of this as a joyful service. There is a real joy in knowing that the world doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders.
But there is joy in this Ash Wednesday for other reasons, too. After the ashes are rubbed on our foreheads we will read together Psalm 51, which is a great prayer about our sin. “Wash me through and through from my wickedness,” we will pray, “and cleanse me from my sin.” And then we will join in the Litany of Penitence that will probe the places in our lives we would rather not think about.
It is sobering to let these words slice open our lives like a scalpel:
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives.
Our self-indulgent appetites and ways…
Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves…
Our intemperate love of wordly goods and comforts…
Our blindness to human need and suffering…
Of course, this can seem like so much pseudo-guilt or unnecessary self-criticism. But something much more mysterious is happening here. These prayers of confession are our acknowledgment that we are made for better lives—deeper, truer, wiser—than we are living. The first thing the doctor asks when we arrive for an appointment is, “Where does it hurt?” The first step to health is naming the pain. These confessions allow us to take off the mask of our coping so well, and to name, here in the silence, before the great loving Mystery of God, where it is our lives are caught, or hurting, or hurting others.
Confession assumes that we are made to be healthy. Confession acknowledges that there is One who cares, who longs for us to be more truly alive.
You see, it is our awareness of being loved that enables us to look at our sin. You may remember the movie Shadowlands, about the English writer C. S. Lewis. Lewis fell in love for the first time in his life when he was well into middle-age, and soon after he realized that the woman he loved was dying of cancer. That experience of deep love led him to look back and see the truth of his life for the first time. Let me read you a poem he wrote looking back at his life. Remember, these are the words of probably the most famous Christian writer in the world in his time.
All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
Peace, reassurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love—a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek—
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
Only when we know deeply that we are loved and are loving are we fully able to see how self-absorbed our lives have been.
We will confess tonight not to grovel in our sin, but to name how caught we are in our own selfishness—so that the One who loves us can help us to become more free. I have found it true repeatedly that the least profound, most superficial people I know are the ones who find talk of sin silly and even ridiculous. And the wisest, holiest people I know are the ones who see their sinfulness, the tangled web of their own motivations and desires and actions, with penetrating clarity. In fact, many of the great saints of the church seem to combine an intense sense of their own failures with a joyful sense of God’s forgiving love for them.
So there is joy in our sobering confession. Because it implies we are made for more, that there is something wrong that explains why we and our world often feel so burdened, and that we can be healed.
There’s a third kind of joy we see this evening. We can call it the joy of being ready for anything. This Ash Wednesday service launches us on a Lenten journey that you can think of as something like spring training for baseball. How do baseball players manage to be the best they can be when they step out on the playing field in April, May, and June? They use these weeks in the spring to work on their game, to do the exercises and drills, to get stronger and clearer about their game and what matters. And it’s all that practice and discipline in spring training, and all year long, too, that makes it possible for them to play so well and in a way that seems so spontaneous.
The church gives us Lent to take us back to basics, to pick up the practices and disciplines we’ve let slide but that are essential if we are to be gracious, patient, wise Christians out on the playing fields of our lives.
How were the Amish in Nickel Mines able to forgive the killer of their children? They had been practicing forgiveness all their lives. How are you or I going to be able to be strong and trusting and hopeful when stress, tension, and even loss hit? By making time to be still and quiet, by reading a gospel and soaking ourselves in Jesus’ life, by practicing forgiveness and patience.
Jesus lays out the basics in our gospel lesson this evening. Give alms, he says, be generous. And how can we not in a world of so much need and of the privileged lives that all of us here live?
Pray, Jesus says. Sit in front of a lighted candle for 15 minutes a day, and, as you do, feel your mind race and then slowly begin to settle down. Join a prayer group here at the Cathedral. Go to our bookshop and pick one of hundreds of books on prayer to guide you.
And then, he says, fast. Do your life differently for these weeks. Give up something—to remind you that you’re making room for God. Or take on one of these good practices. Or take up what the prophet Isaiah says fasting should entail: “To loose the bonds of injustice,…to let the oppressor go free,…to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor in to your house?” Find your ministry. Everyone needs one.
The demanding joy of this evening comes to its completion as we gather at the altar to receive Christ’s Body and Blood. The table will be spread for the likes of you and me. And we will come, all of us who have been running from our mortality, wounding ourselves and each other, avoiding our connection to the pain of the world around us. We will come, just as we are.
And there we will be fed by a Love who hung on the cross for us, a Love who holds all of our failures in the wounds of his love. A Love who forgives us and sets us free.
This is all strong medicine. Ashes, sin, discipline, bread and wine—all of these point to the journey of Lent ahead. And all are for our joy.