Ash Wednesday is one of the most penetrating moments of the church year. This is the day we tell ourselves hard truths about who we are and what we are doing with our lives. They are hard truths, but they are also hopeful ones.
In a few moments ashes will be rubbed in our foreheads and someone will say to us, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The first liberating truth is that we are going to die, maybe tonight, or tomorrow, maybe not for a few years. But our ground time here will be brief. We tear through our lives doing more and more, setting unrealistic expectations of ourselves, deferring time and again the point when we really think we might start to live. As soon as this start-up gets going I’m going to make sure things settle down, as soon as I’ve proven myself in my new job, as soon as I’ve saved enough for retirement, then I’ll spend time with my family, my friends, then I’ll get serious about my faith. And of course that moment always recedes in front of us.
Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow wrote a short novel near the beginning of his career called Seize the Day. In it Tommy Wilhelm is a man tearing through the streets of New York City trying to hold together a world that seems determined to fall apart. An ex-salesman, he is now unemployed, and he is down to his last seven hundred dollars with his wife demanding that he make his support payments promptly. Tommy himself is going to seed, neurotically overeating, unable even to catch his breath much of the time.
And then his day of reckoning comes. In desperation he had given a shady character his last seven hundred dollars to invest in some stock market speculations, and then learns that the fellow has taken off with the money. Tommy goes tearing up Broadway in hot pursuit but then, on the verge of collapse, he finds himself shoved with a crowd into a funeral parlor where a service is in progress, and there Tommy stands, staring down at a dead man, and begins to weep, first softly, then louder, until he is sobbing. This is how Bellow describes it:
The source of all tears had suddenly sprung open within him…The great knot of ill and grief in his throat swelled upward and he gave in utterly and held his face and wept. He cried with all his heart…
Tommy has been pushing and pushing, but no matter how hard he pushes he can’t pull it off. His life begins to crumble, but then something shifts in him:
The flowers and lights fused ecstatically in Wilhelm’s blind, wet eyes; the sea-like music came up to his ears…He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the fulfillment of his heart’s ultimate need.
He falls into a surprising peace. When he takes his hands off his life, when he gives up his struggle, he finds that there is a well of peace and hope that promises he may yet survive his crisis.
The ashes we will receive on our foreheads are intended to be the funeral for our pretenses, our fantasies that we can press on forever, our notion that if we keep pushing we will achieve the peace we’re looking for. Death is the Great Teacher. Death tells us we’re not in control. Death tells us to surrender our fantasies of immortality. It tells us all we have is today.
Anne Lamott, a few years ago wrote in a book called Bird by Bird about watching her close friend, a single mother, die of cancer and of the advice she received from a mutual friend. “Watch her carefully right now,” the friend said, “because she is teaching you how to live.” Lamott goes on to say,
I remind myself of this when I cannot get any work done: to live as if I’m dying, because the truth is we are all terminal on this bus. To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence. Time is so full for people who are dying in a conscious way, full in a way life is for children. They spend big, round hours. So, instead of staring miserably at the computer screen trying to will my way into having a breakthrough, I say to myself, “Okay, hmmm, let’s see. Dying tomorrow. What should I say today?”
Dying tomorrow, now is the time to live. That is the first hard, hopeful truth Ash Wednesday speaks to us.
The second is that if we are really going to live, we have some work to do. After the ashes are rubbed on our foreheads we will say together Psalm 51. We will pray, “Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin.” To look at our lives in God’s light is to see how many compromises we have struck, how subtle and pervasive is our self-absorption.
And we will pray the Litany of Penitence as it probes our lives in order to reveal the shadow side we rarely look for. We’ll pray, “We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives…our self-indulgent appetites and ways…” The words are the scalpel of the Great Physician identifying our infection so that we can be healed.
And the answer to our sin from both the prophet Isaiah and Jesus himself is for us to take on the great spiritual practices of our tradition—fasting, sharing our treasure, praying. The way to grow free from our sin is by growing closer to the God who loves us. The season of Lent invites us to claim these practices by going deeper in our lives in Christ, creating room for the Spirit to work in us, by seeking to be open to what Christ is doing in our lives. Saying no to food or drink, saying yes to reading scripture or a book on the spiritual life, committing ourselves to times of prayer and worship—all of these are ways for us to go deeper.
But Isaiah says, you can’t stop there. “Is this not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, …to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him…?” To cleanse ourselves before God can’t be solely a private affair; it is to live ourselves rightly in relation to all God’s children. Fasting is to allow our hearts to be pierced by the pain of our world—by the fate of our fellow human beings—in New Orleans and the Philippines, Darfur and Iraq. It is to try to find our way—a check to send, a letter to write, an advocacy group to join—to find some way to respond to the pain of our globe. To offer some prayer, some food, some ferocious determination to do what we can to ease the misery of our brothers and sisters on this planet. That too is our Lent.
These are hard truths—that we are going to die, that we have failed to live the lives we were made for. If Ash Wednesday stopped here we would go out more awake and, perhaps, more troubled. But it doesn’t. It finds its completion as we gather at the altar to receive Christ’s Body and Blood. The table will be spread for us, and we will come just as we are.
The third hard, hopeful truth of this night is that we are incapable of living as fully as we should, or undoing the sin that binds us. But we live and love because we are loved by One who hung on a Cross for all that we face tonight. This Lord holds all of our failures in the wounds of his love.
And so the ashes and sin will yield to bread and wine, the food of a healing love that will work in us in the journey of Lent ahead.
So let us seize the day, and seize it with ashes, repentance, and Christ’s Body and Blood. Let us seize it with this journey of Lent. It’s strong medicine, but it is deeply hopeful. May this Lent lead us into the bright Easter of Christ’s life in us.