Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday

Nestled in between the various buildings of the World Trade Tower was the little chapel of St. Paul, a chapel of the much more well-known Trinity Church, Wall Street—the bastion of the Episcopal economic might and prowess. When the towers of the World Trade Center came down, debris was sent everywhere, but somehow the Chapel of St. Paul was miraculously spared. The ancient graveyard that abutted the church was not so lucky. Feet of debris and ash fell into that cemetery.

St. Paul’s Chapel became the staging area for rescue workers and then became the place of ministration to those who were working on recovery for over a year following the disaster. That Lent, St. Paul’s put out a card of remembrance. On the face was a picture of the cemetery the day after the attack with the subscription: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is still the most sobering image I have of that event and it will stay with me the rest of my life.

On Ash Wednesday we begin the period of the Church Year that reminds us of our mortality. Lent was originally a way for the Church to mark the days before Easter that those waiting to be baptized had to prepare themselves for that event. It was a time of being at one with those who were surrendering themselves to Christ for the first time. It was a time of fasting, studying, praying and alms giving in solidarity with those who were doing the same.

It became a remembrance of Jesus’ time of temptation and retreat in the desert following his baptism. It became a time of preparing one’s self for Easter. But most of all it became a time of doing penance together—recognizing that there is spiritual power in doing spiritual discipline together even if in silence.

It was a time to think upon one’s sinfulness, not to grovel before God. But as a reminder of how easily it is to ignore sin, how easy it is to justify our sinfulness with our rationality, and how easy it is to dupe ourselves into believing that we are not sinful. So it is no small thing for us to have ashes place upon our foreheads as a reminder of our tendency to cut ourselves off from God.

In the times before Jesus, the sign of mourning was to sit upon the ash heap and tear one’s clothing. Even in observant Jewish homes, loved ones tear a bit of their clothing at the event of a death in the family.

Christians sign their mourning at their failure to live up to the calling of Christ by acknowledging their faithlessness with ashes upon their faces. I never make a cross on people's heads. This is not a blessing we mark ourselves with. We need to mourn our lack of consideration for others who have been created by God. We need to wail at our blithe ignoring of God’s events in our lives. We need to fast and abstain from that which gives joy simply because we have failed to respond to the grace that God has lovingly heaped upon us. It is a sign of failure and yet it is the sign of our hope too. It is the sign that it is grace alone that makes us worthy before God and our fellow human beings.

Lent is not a time for scruples either—that overly pious denial of God’s goodness. This is not a time for rigidity. It is a time of discipline that is filled with the humble joy of being able to start anew. It is a time that reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. But it also reminds us that God’s grace provides us with resurrection even in our most dismal abjection.

May the marks upon our foreheads be a reminder to us that God is not finished with us yet—not a badge of honor that we have been to church on a Wednesday.

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