Recycling from a couple of years ago…
It’s Ash Wednesday. Yesterday my friend Father Thomas, an Anglican priest, burned the palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday to make the ashes to rub on people’s foreheads today. “Remember that you are dust,” he will say to them, “and to dust you shall return.”
I didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent, but I have to say, at this age it helps to be reminded that I am dust and returning to dust. It’s not just a help, but a comfort. This world is forever demanding that we take it as seriously as it takes itself, and it tempts us to take ourselves too seriously too. Ash Wednesday says, “No, no, no, dear sinner. You’re just dust, living in a world that’s just dust, and you and the world both are returning to dust. And you are dear to God nevertheless.”
I love the prayer in the Anglican Ash Wednesday liturgy:
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 wickedness, 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.
I used to associate Ash Wednesday–when I considered it at all–with self-flagellation. But, as the apostle Paul said, it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance–the confidence that God hates nothing he has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.
For all my ambivalence about T.S. Eliot, there are passages in his poem “Ash Wednesday” that I just love. The lines I love the most in that poem, the lines that most perfectly capture the spirit of the day, are these:
Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.
“I’m not worthy.” True enough. But not the truest thing. The Lord speaks truer things into being every day.
So happy Ash Wednesday, you old sinner. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. And God loves you anyway.
Wow, this makes me glad that, despite the fact that I’ve never observed Ash Wednesday in this way before, it is a day with plenty of good meaning. My favorite part is how, when we let ourselves be brought back to the right perspective by this observance, we see that we ourselves are just ashes, but that God speaks his “… mercy, perfect remission, and forgiveness…” into us and we are loved beyond that, unto those “truer things!” Again, wow!
In an effort to take myself less seriously, I’ll admit that at first when I read this, and thought about it, part of me was deeply dissatisfied with your use of “And” at the end of paragraph 2 and of the post, wishing that you’d said “But” instead. I thought ‘that is wonderful, but shouldn’t there be more to the story than ‘you’re ashes, God loves you,’.’ I think I must be so used to moving through this part of the story that having a whole day devoted to it was like my customary inertia causing me to trip up at your description of this day. I now realize that Ash Wednesday isn’t supposed to be the whole story, but an opportunity to stand in the awe of this one miraculous part – again, this coming from someone who never really took serious part in any liturgical calendar observances. At least I think that’s what it’s all about, and would appreciate some further correction and/or affirmation from someone more experienced than I.
Sorry for jumping the gun, and thanks for your patience,
This reminds me of something from C.S. Lewis that I came across just the other day:
“But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him…and to love Him we must know Him; and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces.”- C.S. Lewis
When we realize the true significance of the cross, we can’t help but fall on our faces. When we recognize that, despite our wretchedness, the God of all creation has called us to Himself, we are dumbfounded. And we bow the knee.
Oh, how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ!
I love this hymn, written by Anne Steele (1760). Note the contrast of the first and last verses.
Enslaved by sin and bound in chains,
Beneath its dreadful tyrant sway,
And doomed to everlasting pains,
We wretched, guilty captives lay.
Nor gold nor gems could buy our peace,
Nor all the world’s collected store
Suffice to purchase our release;
A thousand worlds were all too poor.
Jesus, the Lord, the mighty God,
An all-sufficient ransom paid.
O matchless price! His precious blood
For vile, rebellious traitors shed.
Jesus the Sacrifice became
To rescue guilty souls from hell;
The spotless, bleeding, dying Lamb
Beneath avenging Justice fell.
Amazing Goodness! Love Divine!
Oh, may our grateful hearts adore
The matchless grace, nor yield to sin
Nor wear its cruel fetters more!