It wasn’t exactly how we planned. But then again, few things have been in this decade so far. Just within the past few years, for instance, we’ve had numerous “hundred year” floods, a once-in-a-century pandemic, and just since Sunday, we’ve had record low temperatures, some of which we haven’t seen for 121 years in this part of Texas. So all in all, we’ve probably heard the word “unprecedented” an unprecedented number of times.
Still, until the winter storm hit, we had cleverly planned how to impose ashes in a socially distanced manner, using individual Q-tips to mark the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful, even while faithfully masked ourselves. What we hadn’t planned on was the loss of power and pipes busting in the church building, creating if not streams in the desert at least rivulets in the hallways.
All of which raised the question of “How do you do Ash Wednesday without, well, ashes?” Oh, I know that the practice itself is not actually Biblical. Jesus never spoke about it, nor did He or the disciples ever observe it. And the early church didn’t do so either, until a pope named Gregory the Great started the tradition in the sixth century, and even then, it took another four hundred years before the term “Ash Wednesday” came into use, when a different pope with the oddly modern sounding name of Urban began to call it that. But we might note that the reformers such as Luther and Calvin still weren’t exactly keen on the idea.
To be clear, the Bible does talk about ashes sometimes. Mordecai is said to have put on sackcloth and ashes when he found out about the plot by Haman to kill all the Jews. And when poor old Job repented, he did so in dust and ashes as well, just as Jeremiah similarly told his people to put on sackcloth and roll in ashes as a sign of their contrition. Ashes thus were both a symbol of repentance and a reminder of our mortality and thus, our dependence upon God for the gift of life itself. But given all that’s happened in recent times, some might ask, does anyone really need yet another unwelcome reminder that life is fragile?
And the answer is, “yes.” For Lent is meant to trigger both our repentance and our renewed rejection of whatever habits or attitudes we may have fallen into that are not worthy of the gospel of Jesus. It’s a bit like the French expression: recular pour mieux sauter, “step back in order to jump farther.” Indeed, that’s the heart of Ash Wednesday, with or without ashes, carne or con carne, if you will, as we would say here in South Texas. For the ashes are just an outward sign that we are ready for a re-set of our relationship with Christ. And it all begins with that simple reminder: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Oh, I get it, trust me. This has been a trying time indeed, especially for the millions here in Texas who have literally been left out in the cold for several days without power and heat and sometimes water. And if we have one more “unprecedented” or “once every century” event it may just send all of us over the edge. But then perhaps that’s all the more reason to “step back” from that edge in order to take a better leap of faith forward during the Lenten season ahead. For maybe wearing the ashes visibly is not nearly as important as actually remembering who we are supposed to be as the children of God. For even without physically marking our foreheads, we can still remember that we are dust and repent and believe the gospel.
I have a feeling that God will see that sign of the cross that no one else can. And maybe no one else needs to this year.
(Taken from a video Lenten message delivered on Ash Wednesday. To watch the full message, visit christchurchsl.org or log on at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYgyGiCZtrg&feature=youtu.be)