Ash Wednesday is a day I have been looking forward to for a while now. Since becoming an Anglican and following the church calendar I have found anticipation grows in me for days which I would have passed over without knowing millions were observing.
My first Ash Wednesday service, just last year, was almost magical. We showed up at the 7am service for the early birds who needed to go to work. Following the ancient liturgy we begin with a silent processional. Our priests, deacons, and the altar now draped in purple for the Lenten season. My senses engaged. We read Scriptures, hear a message, and participate in the Eucharist like any other service, but this one we have the imposition of ashes on our forehead. Before the Great Litany we line up before about 6 different ministers giving the ashes. One by one each person steps up to a minister. The ashes, which are burned palms leaves from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration, are made into a cross on the forehead of each person while the minister says “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
I tend to sit up front because I like to see everything, so like last year, today I was one of the first to receive the imposition of ashes. Walking back to my seat I sit down and hear only the sound of feet walking and the whispers of every minister “Remember that you are dust…and to dust you shall return”. A reminder I have not so soon needed. Young and old alike receive the imposition. I watched a baby receive the ashes as warm, unexpected tears rolled down my cheeks. It’s a sober call…my life is not my own, and neither are the lives around me. All things I have are from God, and to Him all things will return.
Oh, I remember.
As is my new custom, I have spent my second liturgical year praying about what I shall focus on for this Lenten season. From what would God call me to repent? Where do I need deep transformation in my life right now? I began this last year and the simplicity of the focus didn’t match the power with which it transformed me. Though it was a season of much confession, prayer, and seeing parts of me for what they truly were. It was a season of refreshing and cleansing. And by Easter Sunday, the power of the resurrection was filling my heart with joy and genuine transformation. I want to find God in each season, but Lent is a special season for me. I need a time to remember that I am dust and that my sin is lethal. I know that I cannot repeat last year, nor would that do me any good, but I can seek God the same and see what His heart desires this Lenten season.
In this spirit I have been praying this last week “God, what shall I focus on this year, where do I need to repent in my life?” [repent simply means to turn around, from what do I need to turn around from and go the other direction? Jealous, rage, envy, unkindness…this list could never end]. I felt the Lord nudging me in a direction that I did not see coming. Something I felt was too simple. I know it is a sinful disposition I can have, but it still felt simple. Like not too big of a deal. I continued to pray about this issue and ask God if this is really what He wanted me to seek Him about during Lent. I even shared it with Jeff over dinner the other day. Though I was embarrassed as I spoke, it still felt too “simple” of a sin. When I chose to focus on a sin during Lent I also allow God to speak to me about penance in this particular area of my heart. Not penance in the hurt oneself, masochistic sort of way, but in a way of turning (repenting) from the way I have always chosen to do – or not do – something. I turn from one thing and simultaneously turn toward another. It can be quite powerful.
Well, I settled on my “simple” sin and trusted God that this was Him speaking. Sometime it just feels clear when God speaks and sometimes feel like my best guess. This time it was the latter. Okay, so jump back now to the service this morning. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel.” I am watching everyone receive the imposition of ashes. I watch the baby receive the ashes. I remember the fragility of life. But now I remember more than just the fragility. I remember that sin=death. I feel the sorrow of death right now. I know that Jonan did not die because of a particular sin of Jeff or I, but because of sin in the world. Sin is brokenness. The Scriptures say death entered the world through sin (Romans 5:12). Things were perfect back in the day. Remember the whole Adam and Eve thing? Life, freedom, love, all their needs met. Fulfilling relationships, closeness with God. They had it all. Then the lack of trust in God led them to sin, and at that moment death entered the scene. Nothing would be the same. Curses on the earth, on the people, on our work and our relationships. We are experiencing the effects of this now. There is still beauty and life and goodness. But we feel the effects of sin. We would have never known death had there not been sin. We would have never known pain, sorrow, broken relationships, unfulfilled longings, distance from God. Sin sucks. And we have needed a Redeemer for good reason!
So I sat there as these unexpected, warm tears roll down my face watching everyone receive the ashes and think to myself again….”simple” sin? Kimberly, is there such a thing? What kind of theology is that? Are not small jealousies, slight injustices, minor envies, not finding time to love… all destructive? Who is this Liar that tries to tell me that I can have a “simple” sin which are not worth my attention? Sin is the cause of death, is it not? Sin destroys (relationships, homes, finances, etc.) does it not? Sin keeps us from God, does it not? And as I posted last time, He is the fulfillment of our lives. The only Reality, Clarity, and Giver of all good things. Thankfully He uses sin to bring us toward Himself. But the bottom line is that sin sucks. And it is my enemy even though I justify it effects and whisk away consequences.
Death was never part of the original storyline, but God is the Redeemer of all things. So this Lenten season I pray nothing keeps us from God. And that grace and simplicity fill our lives. Even when there are “big” sins which need confession and repentance and much healing, I pray the grace and simplicity of repentance. May this season remind us of what is truly important as we travel the way to the cross of Christ and eventually toward resurrection. Life used to be all there was, but now death comes before Life. In remembering that I am dust may I find strength to die small deaths each day that I may truly live. For if I die with Christ I have Life in Christ. I am eternal (eilam).