The Most Honest Day of the Year

It’s a strange thing
to show up at church
on a weekday,
all for the purpose
of hearing about the need
to repent, to take up some disciplines,
and to be reminded that we will die,
as we are marked with ashes.

It’s strange, but it turns out
that at least in the RCC
and many of the historic
liturgical churches,
Ash Wednesday is one of
the most popular days
on the church calendar.

People have speculated
it’s because people start
Lent the way they start the new year,
full of good intentions
that peter out in a few days.

Others think it’s because
Ash Wednesday taps into
some primordial sense of guilt,
and we want to be marked
to signify that.

I think it’s because
it’s the day we tell the truth.

The church in general is a truth-telling place.
Even if the preacher is too chicken,
you’ll get the truth from
scripture, the prayers, the confession.
During much of the year
we might whisper these truths to ourselves,
but on Ash Wednesday
we trumpet the truth about sin and death.

Out in the world,
when we screw up,
others comfort us,
tell us why what we did was okay.
When people apologize in public,
they often use the passive voice—
“mistakes were made”—
or try to share the blame—
“I’m sorry IF what I said
hurt your feelings; that’s not what I meant.”

Here in church, we say,
“we have sinned” and “we are truly sorry”
and “we humbly repent.”

Out in the world, death is a pariah,
to be avoided at all costs.
Our healthcare system is designed
to eek out a few more days of life,
no matter the cost,
to our bodies, our dignity, our families.

Here in church we know
that the grave
isn’t an ending
but a beginning;
we know there are worse things than death.
Here we say, “Remember you are dust”;
Here we say, “even at the grave we make our song.”

And isn’t it a relief to hear the truth?

After all, it’s not like
we don’t know
that something has gone wrong.

We’re all living on the edge,
exhausted from the pandemic,
fearful for our children,
worried about our marriages and our jobs,
our coping mechanisms have frayed;
we’re not sure what to do
about the injustices in our country;
and we’re overwhelmed by world events,
disbelieving as we watch war unfold in Europe.

The church is the place we tell the truth about all of that.

We stop trying to be shiny and perfect,
pretending everything is okay.

Ash Wednesday is the most honest day of the year.

And we are broken open by the truth.

We are sinners.
We are going to die.
We’re afraid, we’re anxious,
we’re exhausted, we’re filled with regrets.

Today, the Church in all her wisdom,
wraps us up in purple
and says, “Same.”

Out in the world,
we can share some of this,
but if we cross the line too much,
our sin looms too large,
we might get cancelled.

If we express our anxiety,
our fears, our shame, too acutely,
we’re not getting invited
to any more parties.

And illness? Dying? Death?
Out there, we’re supposed
to fight and be courageous,
never give in.

In here, on Ash Wednesday,
we face our old foes of sin and death,
but we’re not left alone with them.

No, for the church, God,
tells the truth about the illness
AND provides the remedy.

Truth: Sin and Death.
Remedy: Forgiveness and Resurrection.

It’s fashionable in Lent
to come up with
a big old list
of things to do or to give up
for this season.

Sometimes I’m exhausted
by the plans made for Lent,
my own and others.
It can feel like
another excuse for making
New Year’s Resolutions,
self-improvement plans,
as if we’re going to solve
sin and death ourselves.

The thing is Lent
is a time to prepare
for the biggest party ever:
Resurrection on Easter.

It’s a chance to let God
work on us a little more.

Sin, after all, is “missing the mark,”
like an archer’s arrow missing the bull’s eye.
We’ve fallen short of the glory of God;
we’ve gone astray like lost sheep.

Ash Wednesday tells the truth of that;
Lent is the time of repentance,
of turning around, turning the right way,
back to God.

There lots of ways to do this of course,
but in this time of exhaustion,
when the last two years
have felt like nothing but Lent,
self denial, being alone in the desert,
perhaps we could choose a gentle path,
following the very simple suggestions
of Jesus in Matthew:
Pray.
Give Alms.
Fast.

Not as harsh disciplines,
not to fix yourself,
not to prove yourself,
but as ways to make space for God,
opening up room in your life
for God to do God’s thing.

As the prayer for the first Sunday of Lent says:
Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save.

For the great Physician who diagnoses our ills
is also the one who applies the remedy.