Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Promise From These Ashes

When our daughter Catherine was about three, one of her first memories of church came on Ash Wednesday. On this day, the beloved Pastor who had baptized her and blessed her at the communion rail each week when she stuck out her pudgy hand for bread, instead reached out to place ashes on her forehead. And at three, she was just old enough. Just old enough to realize that his booming baritone voice was telling her she was “DUST.” And that she was not getting bread, but instead a large black thumb was headed for her forehead. And to our little girl, “DUST” boomed forth and smudged a giant flaky black cross on her head. Little black flecks fell down on her face, and on her shirt. And the more she tried to fix it, the worse it got. And she shrieked out in a pitch known mainly to preschoolers, and was inconsolable. We nervously hauled our wailing child out of the church as quickly as possible, so as not to offend the rest of the quiet and reverent people dutifully coming forward to receive their ashes, many still dressed in their suits and skirts from work, or in their immaculately maintained choir robes.  Moving with precision and just the right amount of piety. Not behaving like this disruptive sobbing child who suddenly felt that all of the grace and happiness had been ripped away, and all that was left was a big black smudge that felt like the world had changed.  The poor pastor was beside himself as week after week our daughter would not take what was once grace-filled bread from his hand. In fact, she could not even look at him, still scared and confused.

And yet, I think she simply was more honest than we are. I wonder if a poll had been taken that night, how many people were trying to ignore the fact their existence at times felt more like ashes than not. Walter Brueggemann has written a poem entitled Marked by Ashes which captures this feeling:

This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not..

All our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.*

Maybe if we could get away with it, we too have days we would wail inconsolably, wondering about the future of grace filled bread for the day. Times we are half turned toward God, and half rather not. When we hold on more fiercely to our ashes and dust, perhaps hoping that if we do a few expected things, they’ll make up for what’s missing deep down. Yet we long for the words Jesus tells us to pray that are found in the missing verse from today’s gospel-you can say them without thinking, I know. 
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, here.11Give us this day our daily bread.12Forgive us… as we also have forgiven… Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from evil.” How many times we pray these words out of habit and quickly. Yet perhaps quickly before our ashen-ness reminds us how it really is, the messes we have made, and the places where we are led to the temptation of believing it takes us to fix these things. Times we trust in thinking we have to hold onto everything, or it will come to nothing but dust and ashes.

When we do this, we hold onto our hearts and turn away from the giving and sustaining relationships God brings. We miss the amazing paradox that the cross on our heads is really about. That what seems like death and limitation, brings freedom and life. We focus on what it seems like God will take and forget what we receive. If this cross and this life are seen only as being about duty and giving up, if it is only this, we keep the focus on ourselves and our fears.

Today we enter a time to remember not only how ashy we are, but how we can let go of our ashes and dust and fear. Because while life is messy and seems unsure, in the cross God calls us, to return because the world has changed. In the cross God shows the power and mercy that offer the grace of a deeper relationship only God can bring forth. God is calling us again to turn toward what is new, restoring, and sufficient. Because this cross is not only a sign our ashen-ness, but of the very love and grace that saves us. This black dust is not a sad substitute for grace filled bread, but a reminder of how our limitations are exceeded by the power and hope God brings. When we stop trying to fill our hearts with all of our ashes we can give them over to God’s newness.

Then we can receive joy and energy, courage and freedom. We can grow into becoming fearless-for God’s truth, and mercy and justice. For God’s peace and generosity. We can dare to “ponder our ashy state with some confidence, and grow to see that every Wednesday of ashes anticipates God’s Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.”
This is the meaning of the cross-Our world is a dusty mess, but God’s cross speaks promise from these ashes, this Wednesday and forever. AMEN

*poem in full found in Prayers for a Priviledged People.

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