the story room

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday

Early this morning I attended an Ash Wednesday service. It was the first time that I've walked around all day with ashes on my head (the service I went to last year was at night). In the coming days, I want to share some thoughts about today's experience.

Today, though, as I think about the beginning of my Lenten discipline this year, I'm reminded of something I wrote last year...something that's been on my mind since I wrote it. So, I share it with you again today...

Ashes on Our Foreheads
(from April 3, 2006)

Thirty-three days into Lent, I've finally realized that I'm unable to keep the promise I made.

Sparing the details, I'll suffice it to say that I promised to fast from unloving and unkind words: things I wouldn't say about people if I knew they could hear me say them. Every day I've tried to discipline myself, but every day I've gotten it wrong way more than I've gotten it right.

I spent a lot of time this week praying and thinking about why this abstention, seeming so simple when I promised it, has been virtually impossible to keep. And today a memory came to mind that caused me to finally see:

I attended an Ash Wednesday service this year -- the first one I was old enough to understand. And even though I knew to expect it, I was still struck by the ashes. I was captivated during the service as I watched the elders smudge dusty crosses on each person who came forward: the beautiful, the sad, the very old, the complacent, the the newly-born, the wise, the fearful, the hopeful...all of us, at the end, with ashes on our foreheads.

Dust you are, and to dust you will return, the elders said.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life, whispered we.
The smudgy cross.

The ceremony was beautiful and profound, but then it ended. However, it was the time following that that affected me most.

In the candlelight, in the quiet, with Jesus' words on our lips - even with the mark of weakness and death on our heads - we looked courageous, holy, mysteriously strong. And the beauty of the ceremony is that, in a way, it showed us for what we were. But when the service ended, the candles were blown out, and the lights were turned up, the ordinariness of life quickly seeped into our conversations, our gestures, the ways we watched and listened to each other. Disappointingly ordinary (and loud and busy and self-centered and...), but bearing still the dusty crosses, all of us.

It was like a dream. All of us carrying on as usual, but able to see beyond what we usually see: all of us dusty and weak, terribly hopeless...and yet, showered with mercy and love, undeserved and overflowing.

I expected to leave church that night remembering that I was dust, and grateful for God's mercy. And I did. But I also left remembering that everyone else is dust, too. And if the perfect One mercifully and unashamedly loves dust, then I, smudged and ashy too, must do no less.

My problem with Lent this year is that I tried to hold my tongue but had little compassion. I didn't see their ashen crosses. And I seldom remembered my own.

But I haven't laid down my lenten promise; I take it up differently. God knows my willpower and strength is no strength at all, and in need of mercy I am indeed. But I want to love as graciously and freely and gladly as our Father. So I, weak but willing, will pray to love with his unbounded and compassionate love.

And I'll not forget the ashes.


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