Thursday, February 11, 2016

How we are marked

I'm never quite sure how to greet people on Ash Wednesday.  It seems disingenuous to wish someone a “Happy Ash Wednesday” because it’s not a time of joyous celebration.  Instead, Ash Wednesday, and Lent, the season that follows, are solemn periods when we reflect upon our mortality and sin.  It’s incongruous that we choose to subject ourselves to these reminders of weakness and failure that we spend most of our lives trying to forget. 
During Lent, we acknowledge pain and brokenness in ourselves and in our world, when we typically pretend that everything is fine. We admit the sin that stands in the way of our relationship with God and our fellow humans, when we’d rather assume that we are not to blame.  We realize how we are connected, when it’s easier to operate as detached individuals.  We are reminded of our mortality, when we’d prefer to think we are invincible and immortal.

There is a profound gift in this journey of Lent that leads us through the rejection, betrayal, and suffering of Jesus as he faced death on the cross.  It teaches us that the only way to get out of pain and darkness is to journey through it, and we don’t do this alone. 

I believe that darkness is a necessary part of our spiritual journey.  So many encounters with God happen in the darkness…the Israelites wandering through the wilderness led by a pillar of fire…a man wrestling God for a blessing in the night…a dream of a child that would save us all…
…and those times in our own lives that we don’t know how we will make it through the darkness, until we somehow find ourselves standing in the light with God right by our side.

Theologians and poets talk of the “dark night of the soul” and I think many of us understand at a spiritual level what this is all about.  We wrestle with doubts and uncertainty and we feel that we are the only ones.  But the similar mark of the ashes on our forehead show that we all have known darkness and we are all seeking the light.  Our forehead crosses are a testimony: “I believe…help my unbelief.”
Some know a darkness even deeper, the downward pull of mental illness and depression.  The darkness whispers to those sufferers that they are alone, and the stigma of the disease may silence their cries.  But in our ashes, we see that we are in this journey together.  We have all known our own form of darkness, and we all have our scars.  We are marked to remind us that we belong, to God and to one another. 
This is easy to forget, though, in our culture that is focused on individual achievement and competition.  Even our typical Lenten fasts are more about our own benefit (such as cutting chocolate to lose weight) than about turning our attention to serving God and others. 

Pope Francis suggested a different kind of fast, though, in a Time magazine article from last year.  Instead of fasting that affects our body, he called Christians to fast in a way that will change our hearts.  He said that we should consider giving up our “indifference to our neighbor and to God” because “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.  We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”

Reaching outside of ourselves is the way we allow God to change our heart.  When we fast from our indifference to others, God will fill us so that we can feast on love that can set us free from our walls and prejudice.

This is not easy work, though, and the ashes are an appropriate symbol.  They remind us of our mortality and the smaller deaths we suffer along the way.  They remind us of how we must die to ourselves to follow God, surrendering our selfish desires in order to consider the needs of those around us.  It can be a painful process, but it is transformative as we are fashioned and formed into a new creation.  The ashes provide a small glimmer of hope, the reminder of what survives the burning.  As Jan Richardson says in “Blessing the Dust”,

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

We may be only dust, and to dust we’ll one day return, but there is much hope in this as well. 

When we were fashioned out of dust, we were created in the image of God, and inspired by the Spirit.  In our ashes, we are marked as a community.  We have come from the same place, and we journey together in a common mission of following Christ.  We all carry a bit of God-likeness within us, so in sharing our similarities and our differences, we can gain new images and understandings of God.  We see this in the ashes that mark us as sisters and brothers in Christ, and in the call to serve all of God's people in love.  We are all dust, and we share a common humanity.

We are dust, and to dust we will return, and yet, my favorite line in Jan Richardson’s blessing is this:
Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

The cross is our reminder that death and grief do not get the final word, but we are promised new life in Christ.  Though we may walk through the darkness for a while, we hold on to faith that God is with us and will save and restore us.  After all, we worship a God that breathes life into dust, that renews dry bones, that resurrects hope when all seems lost.

In Ash Wednesday and Lent, we be reminded that we are not alone in the journey, but we have been marked as a community, as children of God.  Let us seek to care for all of God’s creation, sharing the hope of Christ with all we encounter.

Make a good Lent.  Happy Ash Wednesday.