Lent is the most holy time of penitence on the Christian calendar. Traditionally, it is a time for potential converts to assess the true desire of their hearts and their willingness to live the Way of the Cross. Historically, it has also been a time for those within the Church who have strayed from this Way to repent, to humble themselves, and to seek forgiveness. Every year I can get a little (as my mother used to say) "too big for my 'britches.'" And so, this season gives me a chance to remember my place in the world. Neither better nor worse than any other person. A sinner. A blessed child of God. A human being yearning for something more, something better, something whole.
For the past week, I've felt especially melancholy. I've not felt competent at my job. I've felt frustrated with unfulfilled ambition. I've been angry at myself for not completing important goals that I've set for myself. Today, I woke up a different person, ready to have ashes imposed on my head, reminded that I have been gifted this one life to live in God's presence, for the sake of God's work, and nurtured by God's Gospel. I woke up ready to give up the ongoing struggle with my humanity and to embrace it as a pathway to wholeness.
I woke up ready to be changed. That's what ashes do. They remind us to be humble. They call us to mourn for lost opportunities, for wasted choices, for lives lived less fully than they could be lived. These burnt palm leaves remind me that we - all of us - are part of God's beautiful world, completely insignificant to it and vitally needed for it - both at the same time. When the ashes touch my head and I hear God's voice say, "From dust you come and to dust you shall return," I know that I am part of a salvific history that began long before I was born and that will exist long after I'm gone. I have one life. This life. My choices are important in this life. I cannot go back and change my life. How I decide to live each moment has an infinite number of consequences. And, yet, I am but dust. It is a wonderful paradox. A paradox of which I need reminding in the most tactile way - with ashes on my head.
We live messed up lives in a messed up world. If that were the beginning, middle, and end of the story, we would be hard pressed to want to be here at all. We also live these messed up lives in the presence of a healing, transforming, saving, earth-shattering God. A parent who welcomes us home after transgressions. A friend who accompanies us on foolhardy paths. A teacher who instructs us to live better. A critic unashamed to tell us to do better. A breath that infuses our lungs. A poem that inspires our hearts. A lion that protects her cubs. A fountain that overflows with living water. A tree that grows fruit for the body and leaves for the healing of the nations. A word that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. This is our God. This is our Gospel. It is with us in the "mess-upness" of our lives.
When the ashes touch our foreheads today, we look at all of the "messed-upness" of our world and in our lives. We look it squarely in the face. We take responsibility for broken relationships. We acknowledge the errors that we have made. We do not flinch. We can take it because we are empowered by our God. And then we enter Lent. We wander in the wilderness as did Jesus - as did the Israelites. During our 40 days, we may cry for how things were. We may not trust that God is creating change in our lives. We may want what we do not have and hoard what we do have. But God is at work. God is pulling us out of slavery and is preparing us for freedom. God is using this wilderness to disorient and then reorient us. God is challenging our understanding of unholy work - work done for Empire, for greed. Work done without restraint or constraint. Work that harms us and other. And God is preparing us for another kind of work. Holy work. Work that begins by stopping (Read Exodus). Work that uplifts the whole community. Work that recognizes limits. Work that never seduces us into believe that we are gods. Holy work transforms community. It makes space for the widow and the orphan. It welcomes the stranger. It leaves time for family, play, and worship.
I am so happy to have arrived at Ash Wednesday. I am not a unit of labor. I am not an awful person. I am not a god. I am not bad. I am not good. I am a human being of infinite worth among 6 billion other humans all of infinite worth. That's a lot of infinite. That's a lot of worth. Thanks be to God.