“‘Excuse me, you’ve got some dirt on your head.”
How many times have you heard this, and felt yourself heave a heavy sigh. But this simple question can serve as a catalyst for a very important discussion. So why exactly do we have this smudge on our foreheads?
Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a time when we stop and assess how we’re doing in our walk with God. Lent helps us identify spiritual areas in which we can grow and sinful areas that we need to avoid. To repent, put simply, means to turn away from sin and turn toward God. We use ashes as an outward expression of our need to begin again.
For over twelve hundred years on the dies cinerum (day of ashes) faithful followers have approached the altar and received ashes upon their foreheads. These ashes are made from the burnt palm fronds that were blessed on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. The ashes are sprinkled with holy water, usually fragranced with incense and blessed using four prayers that are thousands of years old. The use of ashes for repentance and penance can be traced even further back and is practiced throughout the world. On Ash Wednesday ashes are applied to believers’ foreheads in the shape of the cross.
So today we begin a 40 day period of wilderness wandering, 40 days because that’s how long Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. Even those in our society who have never really observed Lent know that it’s the time of year when pious people suffer and give things up not so God will be impressed with us, but to press upon ourselves the need for repentance and reform. As stated in this passage from the prophet Joel –
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
Seems to sum things up pretty well…..Fasting, Weeping, Mourning. For those of us who act like Lent is a competitive sport, this text from Joel is a pretty awesome starting place. But Lent isn’t a contest, and other than the outward sign of a cross of ashes on our forehead, is meant to be very private. As we are cautioned to do in Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18:
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
But, why does God say to return to God with all of our heart rather than return to God when we get our crap together? I mean in Lent we tend to really focus on our behavior, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if God says return to me with all your heart, I think that maybe the implication is that we give our hearts to a whole lot of things that are not God. So if we think Lent is about giving things up so we can impress God maybe we should ask ourselves: which is harder – the fasting part or the returning to God with all our heart part?
I don’t think that my problem is that I eat too much sugar or spend too much time on Facebook. My problem…and maybe yours too, is that I sort of give my heart out to things, and even people, that cannot love me back. I mean, by the time I even get to the table of God’s grace, I’ve tried to love so many things and people, and hopes and doubts – I’ve given myself to them so completely that there’s very little left. So little to be fed by God’s grace since my starving little heart is doled out in so many pieces trying to get it’s own needs met. And so, thank God, once a year we gather to speak the truth of how we piece out our hearts, how we sin and fall short, how we rely on every single other thing to love us – everything but God. How we love each other and are loved by each other so poorly with the small leftover bits of our hearts after we’ve given most of them and time to career advancement, saving the world, saving for our future, buying fake cows on Facebook and the dull pain of chemical dependency, sugar binges or the next spiritual practice or restricted diet that promises to make us whole. It’s not our time that’s so wasted with all of it…I think it’s something so much more valuable… I think it’s our hearts.
So we gather again this Ash Wednesday with the faithful all across the world, to gather all the pieces of our broken selves…all the pieces of our starving little hearts and we come again here to be told, of all things, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. The very thing we are trying to pretend is not true. I think we give our hearts away because we’re afraid of the limits of our earthly bodies. In other words, we sin. And all of it…and I hate to be so cliché, but basically, when it comes down to it, all of it is about the fact that we’re afraid to die. But even though we may be afraid to die, then you’d think hearing you are dust and to dust you shall return would be pretty bad news, but not so. Because here’s the thing: in the creation story in Genesis 2 it says that the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils, the breath of life; and the man became a living being. So, yes, children of God…you are dust and to dust you shall return. But remember this: it is from dust and the very breath of God that you were created out of divine love. A divine love which mends the pieces of your heart back together whenever you return to it. Always, always always! And to do this, to gather the given away pieces of our hearts so that in returning to God, God can make them whole, well, there’s a term for that …it’s repentance.
I used to think that repentance meant to feel so bad about being bad that you promise to not be bad anymore. But now I see repentance as just returning again to God. Just as in the story of a certain Carmelite nun, who found contemplative prayer to be very hard because her thoughts would wander a thousand times during a 20 minute prayer session. She was sure her teacher Thomas Merton would rebuke her for such a failure, so she was surprised when instead Merton said that her wandering thoughts were just 1,000 opportunities to return to God.
That’s what Ash Wednesday and Lent are…a thousand opportunities to return to God with all your heart. Returning again to the only thing in which we are once again whole…and that is the eternal and divine love of God. The eternal and divine love of God who created you from dust and breath. The eternal and divine love of God to which you will return after your last breath when again you are dust.