This week was a little unplanned. Monday 14 inches of snow, at least, settled into our region of Kentucky, pretty much shut everything down. We had no school: FOR A WEEK! Our Ash Wednesday services were canceled. And, for a few moments, I wondered if we would have church on Sunday.
I found there were three ways I dealt with all of this change. There was at least one day – and many moments – when I was frustrated, grumpy, and anxious. There were other moments (like sledding with the children – way beyond my comfort zone) when I decided to just jump in and enjoy the moment. And, by the time I started working on my sermon for Sunday, I found I could dig deep into my experience and find some meaning in this unplanned time.
This was the first time in my life when I missed an Ash Wednesday service. Even in college, when I was not attending church very often, I still made it to Ash Wednesday. In New Orleans, well Louisiana, we got at least Monday – Wednesday off of school for Mardi Gras Break. I went to Ash Wednesday with the same faithfulness that I attended Bacchus and Rex. At the age of 40, I found myself sitting at my kitchen island anxious for some dust.
I’ve had a long struggle finding my theology of repentance. I’ve often wondered what meaning or purpose comes from repenting from "little" things. It’s only in the last decade that I’ve found comfort in our prayer of confession; and, this comfort comes from one line: by what we have done, and by what we have left undone… These phrases, I find, cover a lot of living space. By the time I make it to this line (the fourth one in), I’ve found at least one thing (often a laundry list) of “little things” that need a “do-over.” At minimum, this phrase offers me a clean slate every week.
With this in mind, Ash Wednesday has always been my one big, yearly "do-over." The Litany of Pentitence covers a myriad of sins that I'm either not willing to admit or afraid to confess. And this year I was knocked over by what it meant to not experience this moment of confession in community. I discovered how much the "outward,sacramental" moment of ashes scrapped on my forehead meant to me. Every year, as those ashes are placed again and again on our foreheads, I remember that we are loved and forgiven by God, our creator. I experience God's mercy; and those ashes become a physical moment when that forgiveness and mercy are tangible. This year my soul ached for them.
I had planned to use the sermon/homily on Ash Wednesday as a reminder of our fragility. The last six weeks, for me, were filled with constant reminders that we are fragile. Despite what we might believe about ourselves (our intelligence, our medicine, our science, our technology), we are fragile.
I've heard many times during these weeks that children are not "supposed" to die before their parents; that someone is too young to be so sick; that bad things shouldn't happen to good people...still, our children are fragile. Young people are fragile. Good people are fragile. We are ALL fragile. We are made from dust. And at the end of our lives, we return to dust. We are fragile. The dust on our foreheads reminds us that life is fragile.
At the end of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we gather around this altar and share bread and wine. This sacrament, the Eucharist, is the outward reminder of what we know to be true: God's gift to our fragile life is God's love. This feast reminds us that the one enduring quality of our lives is love because love never ends. Nothing destroys love, not even death. And so, on Ash Wednesday we do not end with dust; we finish with a feast. I grew up in the Lutheran church and before the Eucharist we would sing, "This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!" Now, I'm not supposed to say Alleluia during Lent. And this Lent, I don't mind because I need, my soul needs, to hear the song of God’s love in that word: ALLELUIA! My soul needs to remember that despite even death God's love reigns. I need to remember that even in his last moments Jesus loved his friends and followers. I need to remember that I experience that love in this meal, the same meal he shared with them. I want to remember that yes, we are fragile, and God's love is stronger than our fragility.
I think I know why the First Sunday of Lent begins with this reading from Mark. It is, most likely, not because of Jesus' Baptism. It is probably because of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. Ash Wednesday marks, for us, the beginning of our 40 days. During this time, our traditions are fasting, praying, and taking up acts of service. This is a call to mirror Christ's time in the desert: to resist temptation, and to notice the way God comforts and protects us as we resist.
What I noticed in my study this week, though, was everything surrounding these temptations: Jesus' Baptism and his work of proclamation. Jesus enters the desert AFTER he is claimed by God as the beloved. And when he exits the desert, he immediately begins to share the good news of God's kingdom. These are reminders to us: we, too, are claimed by God, beloved by God; we, too, proclaim and share the good news of God's kingdom with our lives. And somewhere(s) in the midst of our lives, we experience a desert: sometimes for 40 days in a row; sometimes the 40 days are spread out over weeks, months, years; often there's more than one desert.
The good news is that we don't enter the desert alone: God goes with us. The good news is we don't depend only on our own strength or ability: we are already claimed as God's beloved and God goes with us. And, on other side of the desert, we have a story to tell: a story of how God draws near to us: a story of love.
When we are baptized, two things happen. We are sprinkled (or dunked in) water. Then, the priest takes oil and draws a cross on our foreheads: "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever." This moment is an outward revelation of something we hold to be true: that every one of us is a child of God, beloved, claimed, and marked as God's own forever. Then, on Ash Wednesday, we take dust and mark it on our foreheads: outward symbols of our fragility and our belovedness. Finally, we gather at this table every Sunday and remember the depth of God's love, grace, and mercy for us. Yes, we are fragile; and, yes, we are beloved by our creator.
It is with this knowledge, the cross marked on our foreheads with oil, made visible with ashes, that we enter into the world. The beloved of God face temptation, resist evil, even find sustenance in the desert; and somewhere in the midst of it all, we find God right there alongside us, near to us, right there with us.
This is my prayer for us this Lent: as we acknowledge our weakness, dwell in our suffering, recognize our fragility, we will experience God's enduring, faithful love for all of creation. Yes, we are fragile; and yes, God's love is strong and mighty, never ending, and never failing. Thanks be to God!