I have the funniest, smartest friends. Like Paul Greene, who is singlehandedly advancing the English lexicon, a word or phrase at a time. I particularly like wAsh Thursday, which greeted me this morning.
I wanted to start Lent by reflecting on the meaning of Ash Wednesday, but life got the best of me and I begin on wAsh Thursday. In the Catholic community, more people come to their parish for prayer on Ash Wednesday than on any other day. This is, of course, fascinating. What is not even a “Holy Day of Obligation” trumps the two great feasts of the year, the secular pinnacle of Christmas and the Church pinnacle of Easter.
One observer, writing in a conservative Catholic paper, noted that in placing ashes on our foreheads we are acknowledging our mortal sin. Is that the attraction? A public mea culpa by those who are active Catholics, deChurched Catholics, unchurched Catholics? At times I’ve wondered if our loss of a sense of sin and an embrace of the healing power of God’s grace in sacramental repentance is, in fact, a loss to our culture. If we’re never doing wrong, what’s the measure of doing better? I heard more about sin last night with the Lutherans than I tend to in a Catholic Church and remembering our brokenness is, in fact, important. Still, ashes as the public proclamation of sinfulness seems somehow not to hit the mark for me.
Yesterday, scribing me with ashes, Pastor Susan recited, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s been many years since I heard those words — probably more than two decades. My parish has preferred “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” But dust… It evokes so much, such transience.
Even among those who count themselves as having no religion, what the Pew study refers to as the “nones,” there’s a very high level of belief in God. I can’t help but wonder if the ritual of Ash Wednesday — one in which we are reminded that we are creatures, mortal and moving inexorably through time, sinful yes, but capable of being healed — is part of what draws people to Ash Wednesday and the marking with ashes.
You are vast, O Creator; I am confined in my individual body, location.
You are mystery, O Creator; I am tangible, circumscribed.
I live but ultimately die, O Creator; you transcend time and space, moving powerfully in all ages and all places.
It’s wAsh Thursday, so all of us are out and about sans ashes. Still, I’m trying to keep alive in my heart the humility that is central to this starting gesture of Lent. “You are God, holy one; I am not.” Draw me closer to you in these forty days and grow me in humility. Even if that means admitting I’m a day late.