Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of another Lenten season. In a little while our liturgy will offer these unsettling words: “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Just in case we had forgotten, we are reminded that Lent is for grown-ups.
A fellow priest in Atlanta, Martha Sterne has said that in her church Lent has often been observed as if it were meant for children: people are “encouraged to make gentle renunciations,” to learn “the faith through mild disciplines of self-selected denials and confession of childish sins.” During Lent the worship in her church seems to slow down: they put in a longer pause before praying the General Confession as if to say, “Now get this children, we are in a Pen-i-ten-tial season.”
Martha notes that “Lent for children is mostly a time for forming habits for living the faith within the boundaries of [our] snug, safe walls.”
Personally, I have nothing against children learning about Lent and developing their own Lenten disciplines, however gentle they may be. But I fail to find anything about Lent that makes me feel very snug or safe, especially on this day – Ash Wednesday – when I am reminded that on another day in the future this body of mine will disintegrate to mere dust.
Ash Wednesday is not just a day to kick-off new campaigns to give up caffeine or candy bars or television for the next month and a half. Today is a lot more intimidating than January 1st when we make new year’s resolutions to reform various parts of our lifestyles. No, Ash Wednesday is a day to confess that we have not been the people God wants us to be, that we have not been the people we want to be. Today we acknowledge that we are hungering, lonely, scared, sick, and hurting, that we are each merely mortal, bound for death, all realities signified by a dirty smudge of ash on our foreheads.
Our esteemed rector, Mr. Trache, continues his work in shaping my formation as a priest. A couple of weeks ago Bob gave me the chore of burning the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday services so that we could have our ashes for today. And as I stood in a strong breeze over my backyard grill last Friday, struggling to get those darn palm branches to catch fire and then somehow collect the ashes before they blew away, I wondered about the significance of what I was doing. Why not just get some ashes out of a fire place?
Do you know why Palm branches are important? Do you remember what happens on Palm Sunday? Jesus makes his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem before the Passover riding a donkey. And we are told the people “took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel.” The word “Hosanna” in Hebrew means “Lord save us now.” And following centuries of persecution the Jews of Jesus’ day had adopted rituals around certain festivals when they would shout “Hosanna – God save us, right now,” while waving palm branches that they thought would get the attention of God looking down from on high.
So palm branches became associated with the urgent cry to God for salvation. And when Jesus came, these people realized that their cry was answered. The people waved their palm branches in triumph; at long last victory had been won.
But we know the rest of that story. Jesus did not come into Jerusalem to defeat the forces of oppression and evil through a military or political conquest. No, Jesus’s victory came through his own tortuous, ignoble execution, the last thing any of those people waving palm branches on that Sunday desired or expected.
And so the palm branches which greet Jesus’ majestic ride into Jerusalem are transformed into ash, symbolic of death, and representing a new journey that begins now on a day of confession and repentance and acceptance of our own mortality, the first day of Lent. It is a dangerous journey which is why Lent is the most dangerous season of the year.
Perhaps all this sounds like grim business. Yet it is the supreme paradox of our faith that we say it is only by confessing our spiritual sickness, our emotional frailty, and our physical mortality that these very things are overcome. Confessing these realities of our life is actually a sign of health, it is an acknowledgement of our need for healing from Christ whose promise of salvation to us is intimately bound up in his own openness to vulnerability, woundedness, and dying.
At one point in his Four Quartets, the poet T.S. Eliot captures well Jesus’ unfailing identification with our brokenness and sickness. Jesus is described as a hurting physician who nevertheless seeks to heal us rather than himself:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art.
There is no trace of the cool, dispassionate medical professional here who cannot emotionally afford to empathize with his patients. Here Jesus is the wounded surgeon, hands bleeding in compassion for us. Here our pain is met by Jesus’ pain. Jesus is the physician of suffering love.
But there is a terrifying aspect to Eliot’s poem, too. I don’t think any of us are comfortable entrusting our health to a care-giver who is in as much or more pain and trouble than we are. And the way the wounded surgeon employs the tools of his trade sounds painful too; with “sharp compassion” he “plies the steel” on our “distempered part[s].” In order to be healed, the patient must allow herself to be cut. As I said, Lent is for grown-ups.
Lent is not a forty-day probationary period for us finally to get our houses in order as ideal Christians. We will not become the people God has called us to be merely by tweaking our behavior here and there and admitting that we are less than perfect, although these things are certainly not unimportant.
Lent is a time for us to open ourselves up to our own deep-seated frailty and brokenness and woundedness, to confess that we are terminally sick and in need of a healer.
But it is necessary as a part of our own healing, that we also identify with the wounds of the Healer as He identifies with ours. Jesus wounds are very real, they are wounds of compassion for us, but also they are wounds of compassion for the pain and brokenness the whole world. And this is where we are most likely to recoil when the wounded surgeon comes in to operate. It is hard enough to be open and honest about confronting our own sins and pain and weaknesses; it is harder still to confront the sin and pain and weakness in the world around us with same “sharp compassion” of Jesus. But that is also what Lent is about; coming again to the awareness that we must be agents of Christ’s love in this sinful and broken world. Just as Christ identifies with our brokenness through his own, so too must we identify with the world’s brokenness through confessing our own.
You see, Jesus is not just interested in healing us as patients, he wants to make us doctors; he wants us to join in his practice of wounded healing reaching out to the entire world; that is our ministry and mission as Christians and as the Chuch!
So my prayer for all of us this day is that we will think of that signature of ashes on our foreheads as the sign our Lenten commitment to continuous healing for ourselves – yes, of course – but also for the world. Amen.