On the Saturday of my ordination, I found myself in the midst of all the excitement, the nervousness, and general bedlam that highlights the start of any big day at All Saints saying to myself, “I cannot wait for Lent to start.” What on earth – here was this glorious day about to start, I felt so incredibly loved and supported, and I’m longing for Lent.
Friends, we have had quite the four and half months in our community. We celebrated the 27 year ministry of Bonnie Perry in late October, then said goodbye two weeks later. We swiftly moved to getting ready for the pageant, then Christmas, and we soared into 2020 with a visit from the bishop and reception/confirmation of 30 new Episcopalians followed four weeks later by a whirlwind trip to Detroit for a consecration, my ordination back home the following week, and capped it all off with this past Sunday’s amazing bake auction.
It’s no wonder I found myself longing for Lent – the stirring and more simple liturgies, the plaintive words of Jesus Remember Me, the call to deeper reflection, the chance to stop…. to breathe …. to dwell more intentionally on who we are and whose we are – the stories of our lives – our individual stories, our stories as a community, and the stories of God’s action in our lives.
And so we begin this season today with the dust of ashes, marked on us with the sign of the cross. Ashes take us back to the story of our very beginning, when God created humanity from the dust of the earth – a little water, a little dust, and the spirit-filled breath of life. (Genesis 2:7). And that cross hearkens back to our baptism when we were sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.
Anne Lamott, in her book, Traveling Mercies, describes ashes like this – “They are both so heavy and so light. They are impossible to let go of entirely. They stick to things, to your fingers…. They cling, they haunt. They get in your hair, in your eyes, in your clothes.” While the ash of the cross painted on our forehead this day will fall off, we are never fully rid of them. I don’t know about you but when that cross is traced on my forehead, I know it is there, I can feel it, light as it is. The dust occasionally falls in my eyes, I can feel the weight of it on my face (like something that needs to be wiped off). And I’m aware of the knowing glances among similarly ashed fellow travelers. We can’t escape the dust of the ashes and it’s a sober reminder that we live life on this earth for just a season, and then return to God: earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
The dust of our lives was made real to me several years ago when I along with a few of my staff, had to open up urns of ashes in preparation for their re-interment in the memorial garden of St James Cathedral. The ashes came from a columbarium at a parish that had closed. And after nearly a year of research and searching for information, reaching out to former parishioners, we had a number of cremains for whom we could not locate any living relatives. So on a bright, sunlit day in April, when the ground had thawed enough to dig out a spot in the memorial garden for these departed children of God, we took on the somewhat morbid, somewhat difficult, and what became incredibly holy work of opening the urns. While we cracked the seals, unscrewed the lids and opened up the plastic bags containing the remains, the four of us nervously shared tips on the best way to open a sealed container swollen over the years by moisture, sometimes fell silent as dust arose from a newly opened bag after years of being closed up, and heard loving stories told by Keith who had long ago been a parishioner at this church and knew some of the names of those we were tending to. And when we were done and on our way outside to the garden where they would be placed to rest once again, I realized how dusty we all were – our hand and fingernails, our clothes, indeed our very bodies – had been marked by the dust of these departed siblings in Christ. They were not only on us but in us as we breathed in the dust of their mortal lives – reminding us that this too is our fate.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The dust of Ash Wednesday is designed to stop us in our tracks, disrupting our illusions of grandeur, of indispensability, and permanence. Our gospel today admonishes us three times not to be like the hypocrites – in the ancient world, a hypocrite was an actor wearing a mask. During this season of Lent, God invites us to strip away the pretense of who we think we are, the stories we tell ourselves (from the falsehood that we don’t need God to the lie of believing we are unworthy of love) so that we might live into the power of God’s truth – God’s story for us. And to do that, we are invited into the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Prayer that so that we might more deeply recognize and acknowledge the unfathomable love that God has for us. Fasting, that we might recognize what we truly hunger for, And giving of alms or of ourselves that we might serve the deep need of the world around us.
Friends, I invite you to a holy Lent.