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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

Ash Wednesday

The first reading today from the book of Joel with its language about darkness, gloom and clouds certainly seems right for the state of the world on this Ash Wednesday. Just as on Good Friday, another very somber day, we began the service in silence—no organ, no hymn, no flowers to be seen anywhere. The most Good News we get today is that we have either neglected to do what is important or fasted, prayed, and given alms for the wrong reasons. The contrast from worship on most Sundays is striking. Alleluias are verboten and nowhere to be found in any text. Then our foreheads get smudged with a dribble of dirty soot and we are quickly confronted with a daunting list of all the things we've done and left undone—and for which we ask forgiveness. It’s not all that appealing, but what we do today is an ancient rite. In the very early church, those who were recognized as public sinners, dressed in sack cloths and ashes, and banned from worship, began the road to repentance to be reunited again with the faith community through the absolution of the bishop at the Great Vigil of Easter. Christianity is perhaps never so counter-cultural as it is on this day and the 40 days of Lent that follow. Prayer, fasting, and extended giving—the disciplines of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel—are not very popular practices for many people. So today, following an ancient Biblical example, we come to church to have our foreheads marked with ashes—in order to be humbled by those piercing words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”—a reminder that, in time, life as we know it will end. I think Lent is what we choose to make it. We can look on the rituals of Ash Wednesday and the ensuing penitential season it inaugurates as a portent that the grim reaper could appear at any time, that death is God’s retaliation for the sin of Adam and Eve or we can reframe the meaning of this season in the ancient viewpoint of the Celts—our ancestors in faith in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales—who were more focused on the miracle and beauty of creation and the sublime gift that God has given us in all that lives in us and around us. As believers today, we really can’t claim any profound understanding about the mysterious gift of life that we have been given but we can reflect on and value it as gift, at any stage. In her book , In Kneeling in Jerusalem, Ann Weems writes “Lent is a time to let the power of our faith story take hold for us, a time to let the events get up and walk around in us, a time to intensify our living into Christ, a time to hover over the thoughts of our hearts…a time to allow a fresh new taste of God.” Lent is a word that means “spring” and springtime is the quintessential season when we experience rebirth and new life, when the starkness and darkness of winter gives way to the brightness and glorious colors of life —evidence of our Creator’s love for the world and of God’s desire for us to enjoy life in all its splendid forms and diversity. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for spring to arrive! These ashes do not need to scare the daylights out of us. Ash Wednesday need not be ruined by its reminder of the transience of our humanity. These ashes are holy and are worthy of all reverence. It was God who decided to breathe on them and God who chose to bring them to life. May we wear these ashes—not just as a reminder of our mortality but also as a symbol of life—a snooze alarm to let us remember who we are, molded out of dust by God and given life. May we open our eyes to the joys that God makes available to us, take a good look at our life—and everything about it—and resolve to take nothing at all in it or about it for granted—as if COVID 19 and now the horrific situation in the Ukraine won’t teach us that. Yes, we are dust, but there are not just limitations but immense possibilities inherent in our humanity. We are dust, but there is enormous grace conferred on our human life. We are dust but God created us to live in God’s own image, to be in a living, growing, unfolding relationship with God and with each other. In the words of renowned preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor, “We are certainly dust and to dust we shall return, but in the meantime our bodies are sources of deep revelation for us…Those ashes are not curses. They are blessings instead, announcing God’s undying love of dust no matter what kind or shape it is in.” Sixty years ago, theologian Karl Rahner wrote these words in his work The Eternal Year, “When on Ash Wednesday, we hear the words, ‘Remember, you are dust,’ we are also told that we are sisters and brothers of the incarnate God. In these words, we are told everything that we are: nothingness that is filled with eternity; death that teems with life; dust that is God’s life forever.”

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