Tag Archives: Ash Wednesday

Jeff Rudy ~ What If I Get Nothing Out of Lent?

“What if I get nothing out of Lent?”

We’re so pragmatic!

We want results, or if nothing else, explanations. It is so like us to approach in this way even these times in the liturgical seasons that urge us to take a break from something for a few weeks. “What sort of epiphany am I going to discover through this practice? What golden nugget of truth will I dig up by giving up chicken nuggets and their kind during these 40 days?”

Or even if we’re in some other season of life that is awfully burdensome and beyond our control, we are so frequently prone to think, “What am I supposed to be learning in this time?” or “What is God trying to teach me?” Often these ponderings come from a premise that is more cliché than it is true – “There’s a reason for everything.” Really?

Thomas Merton once wrote: “We cannot avoid missing the point of almost everything we do. But what of it? Life is not a matter of getting something out of everything. Life itself is imperfect. All created beings begin to die as soon as they begin to live…” Well, that’s awfully morbid, Fr. Merton! But these words are not all that different than the ones I spoke to those who gathered for the imposition of ashes last week: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Numerous people come forward who have just lost a friend to death from pancreatic cancer four days prior. Another with tears in her eyes just brought her husband home from the hospital…a husband who had pancreatic cancer six years ago and still has days and weeks where the effects take their toll on his health. Children looking up at me in their innocence with a smile on their face as I kneel down and tell them the same thing I tell the 90-year-old woman who makes her way forward with a walker to the chancel to receive the ashes: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is closer for some than others.

“What am I supposed to be learning in all this? What can I get out of this?” And I’m wondering if I need to learn to be content with this response: “Perhaps nothing.” I’m not trying to be nihilistic, but I wonder if lingering too long looking for some hidden meaning or hoping for an epiphany might not provide the satisfactory explanation I desire. Perhaps the only desire that can only be fully satisfied, as Merton had said earlier, is “…the desire to be loved by God.”

One of the passages for that somber day – Ash Wednesday – is from the prophet Joel, who speaks to a people who are coming to grips with their own frailty as a nation – threatened by either: (1) a mighty Assyrian empire with an overpowering military; (2) a plague of locusts that would devour their crop and drastically affect their livelihood and health; or (3) both. Speculation can abound as to theodicy – why was this evil coming upon them? “It’s punishment from God for their unfaithfulness.” “It’s to enter into suffering so they can grow in their awareness and dependence on God.” And so on. For Joel’s situation, there seemed to be a clear explanation as to why – they understood it as punishment for their unfaithfulness, their lack of trust in God to provide whatever they needed.

The explanations might look different in our frail circumstances. But what stands out to me is that his response gives utterance to a resignation from trying to control the outcome and rather to simply do the right thing – to repent in dust and ashes. After the call to repent, to return to the Lord, Joel offers up a rather peculiar, ambiguous outcome. “Who knows whether [the Lord] will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him…” (Joel 2:14). Quite an interesting level of uncertainty in the prophet’s words. “Who knows…?”

In grief, in contemplation and a growing awareness of our own mortality, in view of circumstances that are beyond our control, in humility, and in repentance of past mistakes, we turn to God with ashes on our heads in the shape of the cross – the ultimate sign of mortality and the reminder of what it cost our Redeemer Jesus to rescue us from the pit of death.

And so, among other things I’m giving up for Lent, I’m trying to give up the search to find some other hidden meaning. Perhaps I won’t get anything out of it. We don’t enter into the Lenten season practicing disciplines in order to achieve a particular return. It’s not an investment. Fasting and praying are not disciplines that we engage in in order to “cash in” on some prize later. Whether we offer the prepared prayers of the liturgies or in extemporaneous manner, it is not for the sake of getting what we want, as if God were a vending machine sort of divine being – but our prayers, our fasting, our disciplines…these are for the sake of training our minds and bodies and souls to grow in our desire to be loved by God and to take one step closer in our desire to faithfully follow Jesus. And when the former is realized, the latter may be more likely to become a part of who we are as we find ourselves embracing those who are poor or grieving or meek or lonely or embattled or any other attribute so given by Jesus in the beatitudes – and doing this in compassion, carrying on our foreheads, but more importantly in our hearts and actions, the sign of the cross.

Who knows? Maybe there’s nothing more to get out of it than to know that we are loved by God. Isn’t that enough?

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Blood, Ash, Tears: The Ashiest of Days

We are too removed from ash.

Our furnaces soil our hands only as much as a stray clump of dust falls from the filter when we wrinkle our nose and change it with another high-efficiency, allergen-reducing plane of fibers designed to keep our lives clean.

Maybe there’s a stray bonfire, an occasional fireplace mess that dirties our palms or leaves a smudge – extra, chosen warmth for recreational purposes.

If you and I see ash it’s usually on the news, somewhere far away: the 90’s business women with ash around their noses and mouths, the result of breathing in smoke, emerging from the first foreboding basement bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. The dusty, sooty cheeks and noses and foreheads of the bombed and shot-at and chased in Other Parts Of The World as loved ones are pulled limp from rubble. The dazed eyes crinkled in old war photos, peering stark from ash and dirt, smoke-caked faces hiding shellshock.

Lucky us. We get to choose our ash.

Why has ash become #chic? Growing up only the old-school Catholics wore it on their heads and my child eyes tried hard not to stare. “What is Ash Wednesday?” I pointed to the calendar, asking a parent. “A Catholic holiday,” I was told, until our denomination started observing “40 Days of Prayer and Fasting,” and a blink and a few boy bands and technological advances later and there are ashes to go, there are people who never go to church bending and asking for dirty foreheads, what?

What is this impulse for a mark of sorrow, grief, repentance, confession? Why are strangers at train stations asking for ash, in our culture that let black arm bands of mourning drift down to the floor, an old dated practice to be left by the wayside?

Complaint or neuroses or hoarding or entitlement all cover one thing: call it sadness or terror or emptiness or grief, it’s behind the rant at the employee or the compulsive behavior or longing for attention. Mother Teresa spent so much time in dirt and recognized the sadness in North America. She called it a poverty of love.

Oh, God, love – it hurts. It hurts to want to be loved. It hurts to refuse or betray love. It hurts to lose love. And the pastor or priest bending with blackened thumb, murmuring says, I see your pain. It is recognized. Today others will see it too. You have a chance. Love Made Flesh bleeds for you.

Communal grief is necessary. You might stumble on a rare wake among Irish Catholics, or a Jewish family sitting shiva. For the most part, grief has become privatized, something you discuss with a therapist and hide away from the world – unless you sink down into it, let it engulf you, put it in album form and earn a deal with a record label.

Maybe we get to choose our ash. But we don’t get to choose our grief. No President can carry it away, no amount of veganism can remove our guilt, no amount of safe space can really protect us. You play Candy Crush or sew a new quilt or join a fantasy football league or secretly read Fifty Shades of Grey or join a club, anything to distract, but we all close our eyes at night, trying to go to sleep. And whatever you try to numb during waking hours comes to life.

Do not feed after midnight…

I’ve been waiting for this day, ever since two days before Christmas, when weeks of wrapping paper and pain and the Grinch and blood finally contracted into finality, and I avoided looking at my beloved nativity set because Mary had her baby, and mine was lost, the heartbeat ended.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel – born is the King of Israel.

My favorite time of year screeching out of control, the beautiful depth of the liturgical calendar and Advent and hang on, little buddy, is it a boy or girl? Then the baby is gone, missing from the manger. Two children up at six on Christmas morning, starry-eyed and bouncing and laughing. I smile and laugh, turn my head, try to hide the grimace of pain, the tears rolling hot.

Chunks of grace, substantive and heavy, held the doors of our souls open. A girl named Micah wrote this, published it just a couple of days after Christmas when I was sure there was nothing in a devotional email pertaining to an Advent miscarriage.

I’ve been waiting for this day, this thundercloud of a day on the horizon of church life, when liturgy would finally match my insides. I do not want a sunny day when I’m sad.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

From dust you come, to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel.

Your body is feeble. Every life involves pain.

Today we acknowledge it.

And we confess not only our frailty but our hope that blood, ash, and tears do not have the last word. In Revelation, blood and smoke and tears can indicate new life.

“And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.

Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'”

We are dust without you, God.

Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…

Make us new creatures. We can’t live this life without you.


Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ The Persecutor

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

On the road, an interesting question is posed. First of all, consider what we know of Saul in the early portion of the book of Acts. He watched the coats of the witnesses who approved the men creating the first Christian martyr, stoning Stephen. Later Saul “breathes murderous threats” against the followers of Jesus. For all intents and purposes, this man is a persecutor of men, women and even children.

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Jesus Christ appears to Saul on the road leading to Damascus, the statement slices through the air: average women and men may be suffering, but Saul is actually acting out against Jesus Christ, Word Made Flesh, fully God and fully human. This doesn’t downgrade the suffering of Jesus’ followers: it elevates it. Saul, when you raise your hand against these people, you strike the second person of the Triune God.

Second, consider Saul’s zeal. He was chasing people down, hunting them out like a religious bounty hunter determined to get his dues. Saul wasn’t an internet troll spewing hateful comments; he wasn’t just a jerk spouting opinions. He was actively determined to physically intervene in the lives of those who believed differently than he did.

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This powerful man stands up from the ground with his world flipped upside-down. He is led by the hand like a child, taken into town blinded by truth, stunned. He doesn’t eat or drink for three days. He does pray. The big raid planned for Damascus has turned into a completely different scene. God speaks to Ananias (maybe someone on Saul’s list of suspects?) to go and pray over Saul. Ananias coughs and splutters. When Ananias arrives, he addresses the famous scourge of Christ-followers, knowing this man will have a difficult road ahead: “Brother Saul…”

What do we learn from the persecutor who would later be chased down, shipwrecked, beaten, and tossed in jail – eventually to himself be martyred?

We learn that anyone can have an encounter with Jesus Christ at any time. It doesn’t matter who you deem evil; it doesn’t even matter if that person has caused you personally to suffer greatly because of your faith. No one is beyond being confronted with the blinding light of Christ, in this world or the next. Followers of Jesus are actually told to pray for those who persecute them.

We learn that those who receive a hard lesson of a spiritual truth need help along the way. Saul, whose hands had dragged believers, was led by the hand, completely helpless until someone came to him. Ananias prayed for him, and Saul depended on others to baptize him and get him something to eat as he regained strength.

While praying, Saul had seen a vision of someone named Ananias coming to him. Why? Was he despairing? Thinking he would be blind forever? Was he terrified of the people in Damascus, fearing retribution once it became known that the great persecutor was helpless and vulnerable? Was he in need of some profound gesture of grace – the kind of gesture it would be if he knew Ananias’ profile already when he had gotten the priests’ permission to go to Damascus in the first place? Saul needed to know Ananias was coming. He needed to know he was going to be healed, to be welcomed into the family. And then he heard the words, “brother Saul.”

We learn that a converted persecutor doesn’t lose his zeal. Immediately, Saul began preaching in Damascus that Jesus is the Son of God. Saul after the vision on the road to Damascus is, after all, still Saul: the same temperament, the same personality. Believers slowly creak into acceptance after initial (and not unwarranted) skepticism, fearing a trap. And almost as immediately, Saul now is the one hunted, the one on the run, escaping death threats and traps, even being lowered over the city wall in a basket as an escape measure. The hunter is the hunted, but his zeal doesn’t wane. The persecutor now proclaims.

Why does this matter?

Because during Lent we have the opportunity to examine our lives for ways in which we persecute others. You may not have lit a match to burn someone at the stake in modern-day North America; but what about the words we speak, the characters we assault, the gossip or slander that slices at speaker, listener and subject with the cold, deep bite of a sword? What about the violence we express in our interactions with others, rage that pours out and refuses to be scooped back up and contained? What about the thoughts in our minds as we assess in the blink of an eye the character of another person because of her skin tone or language? What about the ways in which our selfishness steals opportunity or joy from others, when self-will motivates generosity and twists it into manipulation?

Because our brothers and sisters in this world are suffering for their faith. Complex geopolitical matters aside, the facts remain that recently a mass beheading was carried out because the victims professed Christian faith. While we pray for the victims’ souls, the victims’ families, we are also entreated to pray for the executors by none other than Jesus himself: “pray for those who persecute you.” We are called to imagine a scenario in which someone zealous for their cause bumps up against Jesus Christ on their way to raise havoc. We are called to extend a hand, to pray for and to proclaim, “brother…the Lord, who you met on the road, has sent me…”

Because we need to remember our own hate, our own anger, our own zealousness, our own ungentle or damaging words, our own ability to destroy. What more is Ash Wednesday than this? To bow the head, receive the ash, and be led by the hand to a time of fasting and prayer? What more is Lent than putting to death the inner persecutor and praying determinedly for the outer one?

From dust we come…

Saul? Saul?

And to dust…

Why are you persecuting me?

We shall return.


Ken Loyer ~ Out of the Ashes, New Life

This statement sounds counterintuitive, but I love Ash Wednesday.

“What?” you might think. “How could anyone love a day set apart for repentance?”

Actually, that’s one reason that makes this day special and, in a sense, worth loving—one reason among many that this is a day to observe wholeheartedly. I love Ash Wednesday for at least three reasons.

First, Ash Wednesday interrupts our normal schedule with a piercing call for us to remember our mortality and mourn our sins. Like the shrill cacophony of an alarm clock, it wakes us up out of our spiritual slumber. There is no concealing our ungodliness on Ash Wednesday, no time for prideful pretending. No, our souls are laid bare, our self-constructed façades of righteousness shattered. On this day, in a way unlike any other, the church boldly beckons us to repent and believe the Gospel. As strange as it may sound, I love that about Ash Wednesday.

Second, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the season of focusing with particular clarity on the significance of the suffering and cross of Christ for our salvation. Because it reminds us of the forty days that Jesus fasted and prayed for us, Ash Wednesday is a fitting time for us to fast and pray in the way of Jesus. In an age when we usually try to avoid suffering at all costs, Ash Wednesday helps us see the redemptive value of the suffering of Jesus for us, and that profound truth casts our own inevitable suffering in a new light. I love that about Ash Wednesday as well.

Third, Ash Wednesday prepares us to celebrate more fully the joy of Easter. That, of course, is ultimately the point—for us to be drawn into the saving mystery of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as we observe the season of self-examination and repentance that begins on this holy day. On Ash Wednesday, we recall through word and ritual, and even rejoice in, the fact that the Lord our God can bring new life out of the ashes of our brokenness. Death gives way to life, and the ashes on our foreheads bear the sign of the cross, which is the supreme symbol of God’s victory for us in the crucified and risen Christ. This, most of all, is what I love about Ash Wednesday.

These reasons and others find poetic expression in a great hymn of our faith by Claudia F. Hernaman:

Lord, who throughout these forty days
for us didst fast and pray,
teach us with thee to mourn our sins
and close by thee to stay.

As thou with Satan didst contend,
and didst the victory win,
O give us strength in thee to fight,
in thee to conquer sin.

As thou didst hunger bear, and thirst,
so teach us, gracious Lord,
to die to self, and chiefly live
by thy most holy word.

And through these days of penitence,
and through thy passiontide,
yea, evermore in life and death,
Jesus, with us abide.

Abide with us, that so, this life
of suffering over past,
an Easter of unending joy
we may attain at last.