I’m actually really new to the Ash Wednesday thing. I went to the Lutheran service at noon, that was my very first one, if you can believe that. So this is my 2nd service and now I have to deal with the ashes. A friend of mine gave me some tips for doing the imposition and those sounded promising so we’ll see how it goes.
My first impressions, to be honest, were sort of negative. Probably the first thing I noticed about a typical Ash Wednesday service is that the prayers of confession are a bit lengthier than normal. Our confession today is thorough; there’s something in there for everyone. It feels almost a bit like groveling. And I was imagining that this is the sort of prayer that might spur God to say the sort of thing God says in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Oh stop your grovelling! If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s when people grovel! And don’t apologize! Every time I try to talk to someone it’s “Sorry this” or “Forgive me that” or “I’m not worthy!”” My hands were getting tired as I transcribed the prayer. Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy. We confess, we confess, we confess. Accept our repentance, Accept our repentance. This is not a prayer that’s going to make you feel particularly good about the moral capabilities of people. It’s a bit negative.
And then that’s not even to mention the symbolism of the ashes. “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes.” The only other time you hear that is typically at a funeral. And with the imposition of the ashes we say, “remember that you’re dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s a reminder of your mortality, yes. It’s also likely to make you feel pretty insignificant.
So my initial feeling, to be honest, was that all of this penitence seemed a bit overboard. At some point contrition becomes self-indulgent, right? At some point we run the risk of actually overstating humanity’s brokenness and our time would be better spent doing something more positive.
But then the more I thought about the day the more I started to warm up to it. I realized, first of all, that if we’re being honest it’s probably really difficult to overstate humanity’s brokenness. We are not in a good way. Recently I heard a minister say that for a while he left the church completely because he found so little mercy there. And then eventually he came back because outside of church he couldn’t find any mercy at all. Do you know why we pray, “Lord have mercy” even though we’re always preaching that God’s mercy is constant and inexhaustible? God’s mercy is not scarce, so why plead for mercy from a God whose mercy is more abundant than we can imagine?
I think it’s because we can’t shake the thought that God must judge people the same way we do. It’s because we recognize at some level that if God were to judge us the way we judge others, and that if God were as stingy with mercy as we are then we would need to plead with God for every little scrap of mercy we could find. But as it stands God is pouring out mercy lavishly and we’re simply unwilling to accept it. Truth is, we are very badly broken and that’s the case whether it’s acknowledged in a prayer or not.
But then here’s the really important thing. The point of noticing our brokenness isn’t to mourn the sad state of humanity. We’re not trying to kick ourselves while we’re down. The point of noticing our brokenness is simply to give God the credit that God deserves by saying that we’ve truly been saved from something. I like the line in our first hymn: “abide with us that through this life of doubts and hope and pain/ an Easter of unending joy we may at last attain.” Doubts and hope and pain. We’re acknowledging that God’s hope comes to us right in the midst of doubts and pain. Soon we’ll have the unending joy but right now God is with us in our situation just as it is. And what we’re saying really is that God transforms our reality. God doesn’t magically transport us to a different reality. God works with us, works with our world just as it is right now. That’s the truly amazing thing: our world for all of its brokenness is the same world that God is putting back together.
For that reason I find ultimately that the ashes are a symbol of hope. First and most obviously they mean that we’re mortal, that our bodies will all return to the dust. But look at what else we’re saying: we can only return to dust because we’re made from dust. Only because God shapes us from the dust of the earth, like in our creation story in Genesis. God takes the dust of the earth, gathers it together, shapes it, and then breathes life into it to form humanity. In our tradition the equation that forms a person is dust plus the breath of God. So by all means remember that you’re dust, but don’t forget that dust is God’s favorite medium. Know that God is an artist, a sculptor who takes great care in gathering us together, transforming us into God’s image, breathing life into us now and in the world to come. Amen.