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Ash Wednesday | By the Rev. Dr. Jo Ann Barker

Updated: Feb 25

“Remember that you are dust,

and to dust you shall return”

When I was a little kid, Lent was a big thing at our house.  We all knew what was coming: we all had to give up candy (We could eat it and did on Sundays!).  As devout Catholics, Mom and Dad fasted.  At least we knew they talked about it a lot and did try to abstain from food on Ash Wednesday and Fridays.  But Lent wasn’t Lent without Dad giving up smoking.  My Dad was a typical WWII veteran.  His cigarettes never heard of filters: Chesterfield Kings, Lucky Strikes, and Camels.  Looking Back, I am sure he was allergic as he coughed incessantly all day and all night.  Each Lent he reaffirmed his commitment to stop smoking – with the steady nagging of my mother’s inflicted guilt, to be sure.

So we all got ready for Ash Wednesday.  For as few as three days and as many as two weeks we ALL went through withdrawal.  It was not a happy home!  Dad tried but just could not endure.  We all heaved a sigh of relief, unaware at the time of the health risks he was inflicting upon himself, but glad for him to return to his happy coughing self.  It was a toss up whether to smoke or disappoint my mother.  The cigarettes won and another Lent went by.

In many ways I miss those days.  The Church was very black and white in stating the necessity of choosing things to give up for the salvation of your soul.  I really got into working for my own salvation.  There came a time however on my spiritual journey when I realized, as Martin Luther had five centuries earlier, that my salvation had already been earned by the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.  Confusion set in for me and I dismissed Lenten discipline as quaint but unnecessary. 

Well God isn’t through with me yet!  I’ve come full circle and am back to endorsing Lent and its discipline.  God has given me a fuller insight into just what the Church has been doing all these years.  There really is a sound theological reason for giving up things in Lent.  We look at those things in our lives that keep us from God or those things that have us too comfortable and we try to align ourselves, if just for a few weeks, with the suffering Jesus endured for our sakes.

The forty days of Lent begins now with the admonition to remember. We begin Lent by coming to Church to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  We remember that we have been baptized.  We are God’s own and have made the promise to God to live our lives accordingly.  We remember that God loves us unconditionally. Memory is a curious thing.  It takes us to those places of joy and celebration.  It also takes us to dark corners where we don’t like to go.

         We must remember that we are sinners.  We are not responding to God’s grace in full and are headstrong in rejecting the call to goodness.  We remember that this life is not the end-all.  We remember that the world does not revolve around us and that we have done things that are wrong and have not done things we should have done.

         But we are not invited today to hide in our closets and beat our breasts.  We gather as a community of public penitents, professing before God and each other that we are anything but OK.  More to the point, we profess our common wretchedness.  We “fess up.”  We own up to the reality that we have followed the devices and desires of our own hearts; and we confess to a deeper malaise still, one that is beyond anything we have in our power to correct.  That malaise, of course, is the power of sin and death, and our own powerlessness to overcome this evil apart from Christ.

         But just because Ash Wednesday has this dark element to it, we should not wallow in doom and gloom.  The worst thing we can do is to forget we are sons and daughters of the King of all creation.  This liturgy should liberate us, not depress us.  God is not interested in our guilt or despondency but in our rebirth, our determination to start over, turn our lives around: once again to get on the right track.

All of us here are ready to begin but how do we go about it?  The gospel gives us a clear outline: pray, fast, and give alms.  Spend some time each day in silence praying.  Make an appointment with yourself to set aside time to spend with God.  Fasting is abstaining from food.  This cleanses our bodies so that we can focus our entire being on God.  Fasting from food may not help you personally so what about fasting from alcohol or from television or from gossiping. You know what’s best for you. And give alms.  St. Basil said centuries ago, “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry, the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to one who has no shoes, the money you hoard belongs to the poor.”

         So how should we leave the service today – besides with smeared ashes across our foreheads?  Released? Yes.  Recommitted? Yes.  Renewed? Yes.  And also reminded.  Reminded that a new creation in Christ is the goal of our Lenten disciplines.  Children give us the simplest most profound insights into what life’s all about.  A nine-year old girl once said, “When you are put here, it is for a reason.  The Lord wants you to do something.  If you don’t know what, then you’ve got to try to find out what.  It may take time.   You may make mistakes.  But if you pray, you will find direction. God won’t hand you a piece of paper with a map on it.  He’ll whisper something, and at first you may not even hear, but if you have trust in him and keep turning to him, it will be all right.”

         I would add one more suggestion this Lent.  Forgive someone.  One of the distinctive marks of the Christian faith is its insistence on a heart free from resentment.  We are not blind to the fact that deeply hurtful things do occur, and that emotional pain accompanies it.  Breaches in relationships take place, justly or unjustly, with everyone.  To close your heart as a result of this pain takes a toll on your spirit.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean liking someone or treating him or her as if it is ok.  It means having an open and loving heart – by the grace of God- toward that person.  Give up your anger and resentment toward the one who has hurt you the most and let God melt the ice around your heart. 

         And so this Ash Wednesday remember the lesson of the ashes, again recognizing what our calling in Baptism is all about.  Concentrate on praying, fasting, almsgiving and most of all on forgiveness.  Then we’ll surely be ready to recognize the Risen Savior on Easter morning.

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