ashes to ashes

"Penance" via Flickr user Sarah Korf under a Creative Commons License.

Today is Ash Wednesday. And while this may sound morbid, it’s the beginning of one of my favorite parts of the liturgical year. Yes, I grew up Presbyterian. We like words like liturgical.

While many see the church’s liturgical calendar as stale, dry, ritual, I see it as life-affirming rhythm. The church’s acknowledgment that life has its ebbs and flows.  That to everything there is a season.

Lent is a time to “memento mori,” which is Latin for “remember you will die.” We talk about ashes to ashes and wear ashen crosses on our foreheads. For folks like me, prone to existential crises in the middle of the night, it’s a time to acknowledge one of our deepest, darkest fears: death. To name it, to acknowledge it, and to use it as a springboard for celebrating the God who conquers death and wipes away tears. But before we get to that point of celebration, we have to go through the valley of the shadow of death. We have to meditate on our mortality, our brokennes, and even broader, the earth’s mortality and brokenness. We have to find and name the cracks and fissures, so that we can allow those cracks and fissures to be filled with the love of the God of Resurrection and Renewal and Things Made Whole.

This is why we’re supposed to fast and take on new practices in Lent. Not just because we need to get rid of habits and practices that are bad for us, though all the healthy eating people try to do this time of year can never be a bad thing, but because we need to make space for meditation, time with God, time to examine ourselves and our environments. We need to get rid of the things that we use to distract us from our brokenness and mortality. We need to focus on things that do not fade. For this reason, giving something up is not the point of Lent if we’re just giving up something to give it up. The intention is to give up something in order to make space for something else, something that will bring us closer to God, or make us healthier, spiritually or physically.

This year, I am making space to read through the gospels, so that I might come to better know Jesus. I am also making space to take walks with my dogs. I hope to use this time to enjoy God’s creation and spend time with God. I hope this time will be a time of prayer and communion that will bring a bit of peace into my life.

I’d like to close by sharing a piece of T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” which is a beautiful meditation for this day (read the whole poem here):

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Do you observe Lent? How are you observing it this year?

Update:

I just got my daily Verse/Voice email from Sojourners and was inspired to share this verse:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break free like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. –Isaiah 58:5-9 (TNIV)”

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8 thoughts on “ashes to ashes

  1. Lovely blog entry…I am a Protestant, (more from a Baptist/Pentacostal) background and I’m exploring the “high” churches and the symbolism they use. I’m looking forward to following your blog!

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  2. I love this post. And yes, it may be our shared denominational upbringing, I also really love Lent. Almost more than I love Advent. Advent is a season of sweet anticipation- the coming of the Christchild. But Lent is far sweeter to me, as it is not only a time of introspection and devotion, but also anticipation of the greatest gift- redemption. (That’s a lot of “-tion”s for 40 days.)
    Lent isn’t only about mortality, but eternity. I try to spend time in each Lenten day meditating on what a GIFT we’ve received in Christ’s death and resurrection.

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  3. I’m observing by fasting from Facebook…already a challenge…I love your writing, Sarah. I’m a huge fan.

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    • Thanks Gary!

      I just had another liturgical revelation: Thank God Lent is during springtime. This way, even as we dwell on mortality, new life is springing up all around us, keeping us from getting too depressed, and reminding us of the way God makes all things new. And thank God Advent is during winter, giving us warmth and hope when we might otherwise succumb to Seasonal Affective Disorder.

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  4. Nicely said. I don’t typically observe lent but do fast when circumstances or needs take me there. Any excuse to reflect inwardly about Jesus and, in turn, to reflect outwardly to those around us, I’m down for. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. Strangely, Lent was something I couldn’t give up when I gave up Catholicism. I always went back for the Ash Wednesday service, even when I was attending a Baptist church. Now that we’ve landed in a Lutheran congregation, I’m happy to have my church calendar back. I like that it brings the church around to topics that aren’t always the easiest sermons to preach. I’m struggling to decide what to do for Lent this year (my life has been a fast from many things since September), but I did go to a service last night.

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