Happy New Year! That’s right. I’ll say it again. Happy New Year! I’ve finally concluded that Ash Wednesday is my New Year’s Day.
The essence of Ash Wednesday lies in the collect of the day: “You hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” The rest is commentary.
God hates nothing in all of creation. God loves it all – even those creatures that we don’t like. However, God doesn’t always like the way we humans behave in and towards the creation. In fact, God wants us to mend our ways. The worship of Ash Wednesday, the readings, prayers, and the ashes help us understand what this amendment of life is all about.
The prophet Isaiah said it very directly: The people cry: “Why do we fast, but you do not see?Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” God responds: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?’
The fast that God wants and expects is not a shallow apology, insincere remorse or pompous piety. The fast that God wants and expects is a mending of the tear in our individual lives and in the very tapestry of creation. That’s what God wants!
God doesn’t really care if we give up sugar for Lent. God wants those who cut sugar cane and labor in sugar factories to get a living wage and be treated fairly by their employers, even if it means that the price of sugar goes up for the rest of us.
God doesn’t really care if we give up alcohol for Lent. God wants to us to take care of our bodies, our brains, and our souls; and I don’t think that God wants us driving around drunk and putting the lives of others in jeopardy, or being abusive to those around us because we abuse alcohol. So if we’re drinking too much, then God wants us to deal with that, and maybe Lent is good time to begin with Ash Wednesday marking “the first day of the rest of our lives.”
God doesn’t really care if we give up Facebook or Twitter for Lent. God wants us to stay connected with one another, but would really appreciate it if we made sure to stay connected with God. And perhaps, God wants us to have more face-to-face conversations with each other.
God doesn’t really care if our names are displayed on donor plaques, but God wants and needs us to give generously of our time, talent and treasure to God’s work in the world.
God doesn’t really care if we if walk around with ashes on our foreheads, but God does want us to remember our connection with creation: that we are part of the humus, the good earth, the dust of creation. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.” If having a smudge of ashes placed upon our foreheads helps us make this connection, then this act of contrition is pleasing in God’s sight.
What does God expect of us? Simply put, God wants us to make ourselves available to be reconciled in Christ: to be made whole and put back together. God wants us to be righteous – that is, in right relationship with God, our neighbors, and ourselves.
What does God require of us? God wants us to turn around in order face God anew and remember our rightful vocation as stewards and caregivers of God’s precious creation. We have the awesome responsibility for serving God by caring for God’s earth. This is our particular calling as human beings. It is a sacred vocation, and we need to remember it.
Ashes mark our frail humanity, our connection to this planet, and our relationship to Adam and Eve who were symbolically formed out of the dust of the earth, molded out of the clay by God’s hands. Ashes are mentioned throughout the Bible. In Genesis, we hear our forefather Abraham say, “I who am but dust and ashes.” Tamar, after she was raped, put on ashes in mourning. Job, as his life fell apart, put on the ashes of grief. Almost all of the prophets speak of ashes and dust. It is right and good that we mark our foreheads with ashes to remind ourselves that our God is here – ready, willing and able to receive our repentance, our anger, and our grief – and to offer in return divine forgiveness, comfort and love.
As a people, we need to return to God. We need to remember and be mindful of the pain and brokenness in our own lives, and that of our families, friends and communities. We also need to remember and be mindful of the pain and turmoil of our nation, our world, and the rest of God’s creation.
Ash Wednesday is about remembering or being mindful: remembering and being mindful of God, our neighbors, and ourselves. Ash Wednesday is a reminder that everything we do and say has an impact on somebody else.
The prophets writing thousands of years ago said it well. God calls us to a fast – a fast of making justice, loving-kindness and walking humbly with God. And if we take these steps, “we shall be like a watered garden, our ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, we shall raise up the foundations of many generations, and we shall be called “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets” (Isaiah 58:12). If we live the fast of God, then we shall feast.
On Ash Wednesday, we pray a litany of penitence. Like on Yom Kippur in Judaism, each petition acknowledges an element of our broken and wounded soul. In praying this litany, we confess that we have not loved God, our neighbors and ourselves with our whole heart, mind and spirit. We acknowledge that we have sometimes not heard the call to serve. We admit that we have been unfaithful, prideful, hypocritical, and impatient. We disclose that we have been self-indulgent and exploitative. We declare that we have been angry, envious and dishonest. And guess what – it’s true. The truth is that, like the collect for Ash Wednesday, sometime during the past year, we have been sinful and wretched, and that we need to be forgiven and made whole. In short, on Ash Wednesday, we will plead that God “create and make in us new and contrite hearts.[i]”
I for one am grateful for Ash Wednesday – the opportunity to get down on my knees and say, God, please let me start over. Please give me a second chance. And once again, mark my forehead with the seal of your cross so that I may remember from whence I came and where I am going.
[i] “Collect for Ash Wednesday,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 264