Life is precious and on Ash Wednesday we are reminded that one day we will all return to God. What does that look like for you?
My first Ash Wednesday memory is straight out of a horror film. It was a dark and stormy. My dad, dressed in all black, his white collar a stark contrast against his somber attire, picked me up from the comfy embrace of my kindergarten class and rushed me to church. This was not the type of “playing hooky” I enjoyed. The service was quiet and there was no music. Then came the ashes. From a silver and important looking bowl, my dad reached in and smudged ashes in a cross on my forehead – ashes, I was convinced (and no one told me otherwise), that were human cremains. I had seen plenty of funerals and Dad had explained the process of cremation to me: how the ashes weren’t completely ash, that there were still pieces of bone leftover. So, I imagined my dad in the sacristy, grinding the bones and ash into a fine dust. Cue the swell of creepy organ music. I was both afraid, sad, and struck by the weight of responsibility – my forehead now carried the last remnants of person.
I have since figured out that the ashes imposed every year on my forehead are not cremains – that they are, in fact, burnt palms from the previous Palm Sunday. I don’t remember whether I figured this out on my own or if it was explained to me. But still, I return to those feelings of sadness, fear, and responsibility. My morbid five-year old self had somehow captured the essence of the day – Ash Wednesday reminds me that I am but dust, and that death is a part of life.
I will die, and I will be gone. Just dust will remain. But what do I do in the meantime? In the Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday service, there is long (and completely boring for a five-year-old) section of confession called “The Litany of Penitence.” For me, this is the section where I begin to do the work of preparing to return to God. I get to clean house and admit my shame, my guilt, my failures, my defects.
It’s hard to face the ugliness of me. After Ash Wednesday, I always feel a little like someone has punched me in the stomach. It’s like I’m breaking myself open into a thousand pieces and am saying, “Ok, God. Here I am. A SINNER.”
In Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem,” there’s this incredible line: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” The underlying promise of Lent is that after all this fuss of confession and cleaning house, that after I break myself open, I get to return to God. God gets in through my cracks.
This Ash Wednesday, as I am reminded once again of the scary truth of my own mortality, I will wear my ashen cross with same sense of responsibility as I did in kindergarten. I will allow myself to be afraid, to be sad, and to be ugly and imperfect and cracked so that the light gets in. I invite you to do the same.
COLLECT OF THE DAY
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
LISTEN TO "ANTHEM"
Click on any of links below to listen to Leonard Cohen's song, Anthem (Live in London).
Listen on YouTube: https://youtu.be/c8-BT6y_wYg
Listen on Spotify: http://smarturl.it/lc_spotify
Listen on Apple Music: http://smarturl.it/lc_apple
Click below to read a great blog about Ash Wednesday by the late Rachel Held Evans: