How's that for a Lenten blog title?
We've put another Ash Wednesday to bed alongside with our Alleluias. I was talking with someone today who said, "I love Sunday church, but I really love it whenever we do something just a little bit different." I agree, and Ash Wednesday fits the bill nicely. In the Episcopal tradition, the language of Ash Wednesday is a lot about sin and fallenness, but it is also about repentance and forgiveness. The Litany of Penitence is full and cathartic, confessing self-indulgence, anger, intemperance, and negligence. We remind ourselves above all that we are NOT GOD.
I was a great discussion earlier today about whether Ash Wednesday is more about sin and repentance or about our mortality. In the course of the worship, we smear our heads with a cross of ashes and hear the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Like any good Episcopalian, I think it is both-and. I see this opening day of Lent as being about humility: we are made of the stuff if dust, not of the stuff of God. It takes the hand of God, the breath of God, the will of God to re-member us into being. And then-- only then-- can we become.
I do not think Ash Wednesday is a great service for newcomers or a great introduction to this system of beliefs. We do talk about forgiveness and grace but on this one day we talk primarily about being dust, about how far we've fallen from that grace and how undeserving we are of that forgiveness. We talk about giving up and letting go, about dying. I am afraid that without a foundation of understanding God's deep, unshakable love for us, this could be a really disturbing introduction to how we believe.
I also believe that we deeply need to be reminded of these things. Many of us need the reminder that "beloved" is not the same as "entitled" and that "saved by grace" does not mean "self-righteous". We need reminding that, while free will is a precious gift, it does not make us God or godly.
Ash Wednesday does these things for me. It knocks me down a peg, into that dust from which I have been made. It reminds me that I was indeed made from muck, but made for goodness, kindness, charity, justice.