Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Ash Wednesday--Why Do We Keep Doing This?

photo by Sean Claes / flickr
'"The preacher asked, 'O death where is thy string, o grave where is thy victory.'
And someone answered back: 'Just about everywhere, Reverend if you think about it.'"
   --paraphrased from Annie Dillard

We Christians do a strange thing on the first day of the Lenten season. We find our way into some church—people are scattered here and there in the Sanctuary. It’s quiet—you can almost hear a pin drop. Many grey and bald heads. But here and there a smattering of young people. One woman is on a walker.  An old man drags his oxygen tank behind him. A businessman must be come from work. We wait in the quiet. I look around at the windows. They tell the story of the Stations of the Cross. Jesus bears his cross. A cluster of women stand by weeping. He falls. Not once but several times. There’s Simon who picked up Jesus’ cross after one fall. The Priest comes in and the service begins.

There are Old Testament and New Testament Readings. We always hear the familiar Ash Wednesday words from Joel: “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” This first day of Lent is a gloomy day,. A day of mourning and humility and repentance. The mourners once would tear their garments—as an act of sorrow. Their ritual of mourning was not quiet—together they lifted up their common griefs with crying and wails and lamentations. Not a pretty sight or sound, either. We moderns don’t do that. Yet here we are with a collection of others. 

On this day the ground is level. We are all the same—the blue-haired woman who arrived in her Cadillac and the black man with overalls. We rend not our garments but our hearts. We mourn our losses. The years—many wasted. The shames. The sins we would just as soon forget. The losses we’ve known—some have come very close this year. We think of the tall sharp runner—now bald-headed and weak from the cursed chemo. I think of cousin Ray dead now three years by his own hand. On this day some of us oldsters know there is more
photo by Tom Cherry / flickr
behind than there is ahead—and there is a rending the heart just knowing this. My old mentor said: “We all just run out of time.” Arthur Godfrey flew over Manhattan one starry night. Looking down he said: “It makes me so damn mad that one day that will be down there and I won’t be around to see it.” That’s a rending, too I think.

And so we come with who we are and what we bear and evade and cannot let go of. And yet we keep coming back on this day when the Church is quiet and the music is somber. Why? To stand in a line waiting our turn. The Priest will take a dab of ashes and say quietly, “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.”  And so he/she marks us with a smudge of the cross. We make our way back to our seats. Soon it all ends and we shuffle out. 

Outside far away a bird sings. The weather is cold. The sunlight hurts our eyes. We reach for the keys to our cars. We open the door and just sit there for a moment. We really are dust. One day, hopefully not soon, we will all return to dust. But in the meantime maybe we will find some mercy and some forgiveness and some faith enough to hang on to the finish line. And joy, too I hope.

Maybe that’s why we pilgrims turn on this cold day and walk inside and sit in the quiet. We have rent our hearts. Dear God some times it just hurts terribly. And yet we keep doing this year after year. 

Martin Luther would say when his depressions would rage, “I have been baptized.” And this day we say, like baptism, we have been marked by the sign of the cross. Maybe that is really why we come. To be reminded that we don’t just shuffle through our days and weeks and whatever follows alone. We are kept, despite it all, by the one who first took up his own cross. We take a tissue and wipe off the smudge. And yet we remember.

photo by Bruce Reyes-Chou / flickr

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