Grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitenceLiturgy for the Imposition of Ashes
and a symbol of our mortality; for it is by your grace alone
that we receive eternal life in Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Common Worship: Times and Seasons (Church House Publishing, 2013), 230.
Outside my office where I come to write, four floors below, street workers and their machines are noisily tearing up the pavement to fix a failing sewage pipe. I hear jackhammers, the scraping of diggers, the yelling of workers, and then the quiet relief of the occasional coffee break. As much as one might consider the commotion to be distracting, I find the muffled sound of repair comforting.
I generally like the sound of the city seeping through my windowpane. It’s welcome bustle. It’s life. And more pointedly, this particular ruckus reassures that someone has noticed a problem and subsequently confessed it to someone else who has the power to respond. Then, that person has gone about removing the obstacles to repair before actually beginning the work. It’s lovely, when you think about it. I suppose it would be nicer to write amidst peace and quiet. But an illusory serenity that denies infrastructural problems will always be short-lived and will likely lead to more disruption than if confronted fully.
Once a year, Ash Wednesday and the wider Lenten fast provide the collective opportunity to notice, confess and address our willful opposition to love. They confront two particular deaths that every age (particularly our age) is at pains to deny – sin and mortality. Each year at this time, many churches offer a service where the penitent worshipper symbolically receives the cross of ash – made by burning the fronds of the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration – upon his or her brow. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the presider reiterates, echoing the biblical account of our human frailty (Genesis 3:19).
Our mortality is a given, and humanly, nothing can be done about it. A few years ago, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After a course of treatment, which only hoped to extend his life by a year or two,
Of course we are going to die. Why does this bother us, as if there was no historic precedent for the fact? Unless, of course, we haven’t – after all these centuries of gospel telling – yet internalized the astonishing mystery of an ever-green resurrection to which the Lenten season points. So much of our cultural energy is spent on an outright denial of death, be it through anti-aging creams, pharmaceuticals to extend our sexual vitality, apps to butter up our photos, or other behaviours or misbehaviours that distract us from the inevitability of life’s end.
So, the gift on offer at this time is that of humility. We do not choose our birth or our death, for we are indeed dust. Ultimately, these things are in God’s hands, and Ash Wednesday encourages us to join our voice to that of Jesus’ humble resignation on the cross: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” Oddly, there is a beautiful relief in letting go of what is not ours to command. In exchange, we gain a trust in the One whose word creates and recreates eternally. Imagine the creative energy and resources that would explode out of a society that quits trying to not die, and instead gives itself to the mutual fullness of life while it is in our hands. We need not fret about death, but rather may live in the fullness of the wellspring of life, which is our ultimate destiny. We have the hope of resurrection.
Another death needs to be confronted. This death is revealed by the unpopular word ‘sin.’ We don’t like it because it unflatteringly suggests we are self-willed and self-centred. We don’t like limits on our personal freedom. Our resistance to the limits imposed by obligations to others reveals that we cherish that freedom more than the joyful experience of mutual self-giving. Sin is the most bewildering malady, as it keeps us from the life for which we are destined and for which we long. It isolates and segregates those things that were created for communion, for love. In short, sin separates us from whatever and whomever we should be connected to.
I learned this as a young adult. After I graduated from high school and set out on my own, my first job was in a music store. I had no idea what I might do vocationally. I was gifted as a musician, but couldn’t see how I could ever turn that into a living. One day I was approached by a local nightclub band that was looking for a lead singer. They asked if I’d consider auditioning. My heart leapt at the opportunity, which I accepted and which won me a place in the band. But alongside the opportunity came an inner conflict, as I didn’t know how to tell my parents. Because my father was a Baptist minister, I had grown up in a Christian culture that generally frowned on night clubs and the lifestyle often associated with them. It wasn’t that I was afraid to tell my folks; they were good and kind people, and I knew they would respect my decisions. But they had always been demonstrably proud of me, and I assumed that this choice would put me outside of that. Because I loved my parents, I didn’t want to disappoint them.
Through a series of ever-building deceptions, I kept the truth from them for several months, during which I became more and more isolated and miserable. Eventually, I was forced to come clean, and to my astonishment, rather than showing disappointment, my father literally blessed me. He reached out, placed his hands on my shoulders… and blessed me. His prayer asked the same God who had walked with his parents and who had walked with him to walk with me also wherever I might go. To my further astonishment, the next day he showed up at the bar where I was playing and spent the night with my friends and me. Afterward, I shared my surprise that he would do such a thing. “How could I not?” he replied. “You’re my son.”
What I perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be a sin, did in fact accomplish what sin accomplishes: isolation. My coming clean exposed as a lie the assumption that my parents’ love was incapable of bridging the distance. Likewise, confession does not so much expose sin, as expose forgiving and reconciling love.
Sin is in stark opposition to our created nature as image-bearers of the divine communion of Father, Son and Spirit. Like a super-virus, sin infects and destroys everything with which it comes in contact. The created world is beautiful and precious. Yet sin has profoundly contaminated our environment, our communities, our politics, economics, social and religious institutions, and the most delicate and foundational aspects of human experience: neighbourhoods and families.
Ash Wednesday unveils that the remedy for sin is like the remedy for mortality. That remedy is not in our hands, but is dependent on God’s prodigal mercy, evidenced in the cross of Christ.
However, in response to God’s gift, our faith also encourages us to defy the culture of sin and death by participating with Christ in a counter-narrative of self-giving love. So, let us boldly tell the truth of our lives. Let us boldly trust in the promise of life stronger than death. And let our sincere penance demonstratively counter the narrative of sinful isolation as we share our bread, offer shelter to the homeless, clothe the naked, and attend lovingly to our kin – all features of the coming kingdom of God.
I wrote the following song shortly after the encounter with my father described above.
music and lyric adaptation by Steve Bell
How blessed are thoseAppears on the 1994 CD release: Steve Bell / Burning Ember
Whose sins are fully forgiven
How blessed are those
To whom Yahweh harbours no ill
To whom his spirit is known
I said not a word
And my bones, they wasted away
From groaning each day and night
Your hand lay heavy upon me
My heart grew thirsty so I…
Made my self known to you
I did not hide
My shameful soul
My darkest side
And you loved me
And held me
And you forgave my sin
That is why each
One of your faithful ones pray to you
In times of distress
Though dark rivers overflow
They’ll never loosen their hold
For I know it’s true
You are a refuge always for me
You guard me with hope
With songs of deliverance surrounding me
Make myself known to you
I will not hide
My shameful soul
My darkest side
‘Cause you love me
And hold me
And you forgive my sin