I’m writing early for my parish blog post this week on Ash Wednesday, grateful for the opportunity the holiday—such as it is—offers to remember our creatureliness. When it comes down to it, Ash Wednesday isn’t a holiday—it doesn’t commemorate anything about our story of faith or any particular person we remember or any event in the life of Jesus. Ash Wednesday instead is a gift the Holy Spirit has come to offer the church through our practice. It has nothing to do with our virtue or our accomplishment. I’m pretty sure it’s not our own cleverness. It’s just pure grace.
Wait a minute, Sara. I just got home from church and I listed my sins in excruciating detail--I sin against creation, against others, and against myself. What do you mean it’s pure grace? Shouldn’t grace feel good? Why can’t the church be logical for once? Isn’t this just another time the church says people are bad?
Well, sure. There is that.
Ash Wednesday doesn’t feel good like a massage or a nice curry or a walk at sunset. Still, there’s something almost exhilarating about the honesty that Ash Wednesday invites us into. We spend a lot of time in this life trying to look like we lead well-curated, well-organized lives in which our kids always say clever things and our spouses never get annoyed with us. Social media has not improved society in this way. In the US, at least, self-reliance is right up there with cleanliness and godliness. This month I’ve been reading Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking, (based on her 2013 TED talk of the same name) which starts with her story about being paralyzed at letting her husband help her financially. He’s rich and famous (the writer Neil Gaiman), and she’s mortified about accepting help from him will mean for their relationship and her identity as an artist. Under it all, she concedes, is her terror vulnerability—we’re all afraid to be vulnerable. You don’t have to be a famous artist to be afraid of that (see also: anything Brene Brown has ever written).
Ash Wednesday just pulls the rug out from all of that. There’s no pretending. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. That’s it. We are beloved and wondrously gloriously blessed by God, but we are still dust. Ad’ham, made of the earth and to earth we will return. What a relief! I’m not perfect and I don’t have to pretend. Widening the view toward eternity puts life in more rightful perspective—both in terms of our frailty and in terms of our power. If we are dust and will return to dust, we can also take some risks once in a while. Longing to be perfect is a pretty heavy burden to bear. You don’t have to.
The other thing that’s great about Ash Wednesday and its focus on our earthy dirty selves is that it’s only one day. We take ONE day to look at all of this, and then we’re done. Boom, on to Lent, on to the actual repentance part. And repentance is great—we can always turn around, we can always go in a new direction, we can always try again. Lent is about all the ways we’re not stuck in our sin.
Jesus was waited on by angels in the wilderness. Does God want less for you?