When I was in grade school, I remember Ash Wednesday as a melancholy day. The sisters who taught us were unusually somber and whispery to us that day. It felt like Ash Wednesday, with its marked foreheads and meager meals, signaled the beginning of a long period of giving up candy – and some feeling that we were all lost.
But many decades later, a look at today’s readings changes my perspective and seems to invite us into a hopeful joy. God invites us to “return to me with your whole heart” and we ask God in return to “create a clean heart for me and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”
Rather than being melancholy, Lent invites us into a deep joy, for we are known by God as imperfect people but we are loved by God as forgiven. The deeply forgiving love God extends to us is like an invitation to renew our relationship with God.
Yes, it might be a period of simplicity, paring down and clearing away the things that are getting in the way between us and God. Lent can be a time to take a clear-eyed look at ourselves and honestly see who we are, just as God does. But it’s a time of great hope, as we realize how much God longs for a relationship with us.
That doesn’t mean we focus on us and our failings, but we can look at the way our lack of freedom gets in the way of our relationships with God. An honest look at ourselves as flawed creatures of God doesn’t mean we give up. Rather we can rejoice in knowing that there is nothing we have done, no act or way of life, no hidden sin so deeply tucked away in our souls, that God does not forgive in us.
Can we imagine the next six weeks as time to spend with one who loves us so much, who forgives and comforts us and rejoices in our love? And isn’t that celebration of love even deeper and more joyful if we have been separated from God for a while?
Today many of us will have our foreheads marked by a cross of ashes. It is a shocking symbol of our own mortality and of the sacrifice Jesus made for us with his death. It is also a public marking that reminds us - and others - of God's message to us, "I created you for myself and gave you my only son to free you from sin and death. Even now, I am calling you, drawing you closer to myself so that someday, I can celebrate with you a never ending banquet of love."
The ashes on our forehead are more than a symbol of our own mortality. They are a sign of God fighting for our freedom from this world, liberating us from the clutches of so many things that drag us away from God.
Today Jesus is calling us to himself in an ever-deeper way, inviting us into his endless forgiveness and asking us to return to his loving embrace. With tears of joy, we can accept his outstretched arms. When I was a girl my sense of Ash Wednesday was that we were lost. Now I see that we are found! (Maureen McCann Waldron)
My dearest Lord, take my small offering of self-denial this Lent, as a sign of my great longing for you. I hunger for your presence in my life, and I thirst for your love. I hunger for justice for those who are wronged and oppressed, and I thirst for your peace. I hunger for a glimpse of your glory, and I thirst for your stillness in my heart. God of giving, God of longing, God of pain, I hunger for you.
Dust and ashes touch our face,Mark our failure and our falling.
Holy Spirit, come,
Walk with us tomorrow,
Take us as disciples,
Washed and wakened by your calling.
Take us by the hand and lead us,
Lead us through the desert sands.
Bring us living water.
Holy Spirit, come.
PRAYER OVER THE ASHES
Life-giving God, we thank you for creating us out of the dust of the earth, and breathing your life into us.
May these ashes be to us a sign that life is more than our physical bodies, and that our hope of eternal life depends, not on our merits, but on your mercy alone, to which we turn now, in sorrow for our sins, and with the trust of children. Amen---------------
"Some Christians jump all over the room;
Others are as solemn and quiet as a tomb.
Some lift their hands high in the air,
But others wouldn't, even on a dare.
Christians are different in style and in song;
But if they are humble, to Christ they belong."
1. Nowadays the cost of a dinner and a movie keeps going up, and a vacation can be especially expensive, but if I really want to go somewhere I just take the change out of my pocket and lay it on the desk. It's like a time machine. Each coin has a year stamped on it, and just thinking about the year helps me travel back in my memory.
1979 is the year my first son was born and the year I started in ministry. 1981 and 1983 are the years my daughter and second son were born. 1988 is the last time the Dodgers won the pennant. 1990 was when I moved to Indiana from Los Angeles. 1994 and 2004 were the years I turned forty and fifty. 2002 was when I moved to Pennsylvania. And it's getting harder to find, but any coin with 1954 is my birth year.
I enjoy laying out the change in my pocket and just glancing at the dates. It's nice to carry these little reminders of important events, good and bad. But they're just one kind of reminder. We carry all sorts of reminders around. One of the most obvious is our date book, which we use to remind us of important events that are not in the past but in the future. We especially need a reminder for Ash Wednesday. It comes in the middle of nowhere. It's not like Christmas or Independence Day that fall on the same dates every year. Ash Wednesday is all over the map, from early February to sometime in March. What usually happens is that we notice someone with a smudge on their forehead and suddenly realize: was that today? Really, it's not very convenient. The least Ash Wednesday could do is fall on a Sunday.
It is an interruption. And it's an unwelcome reminder of an unpleasant fact. Dust we are and to dust we shall return. The grass withers and the flower fades....
2. The Lord's Prayer: A Walking Prayer
Every evening I walk three miles as part of my losing campaign against high blood pressure and my imperialistic waist line. I generally don't wear an iPod, because I prefer to take my exercise without anesthesia. (I enjoy the sounds of nature, and I want to be able to hear the cars honk before they run me over.) Sometimes I devote the time to prayer, and I have found that the Lord's Prayer makes a good outline. Here's how I do it:
I address God as my Father by adoption through the grace of Jesus Christ and give thanks for His salvation.
I pledge to keep His name holy in all my conduct. I remind Him of ways I have done this in the past, and ask Him forgiveness for all the ways I have failed to do so as well.
I ask that His will be done, here on earth through me, as efficiently as it is done by His angels in heaven. I give examples of how I think I could do that; I ask His guidance and pledge my obedience.
I ask for my material needs for the day, itemizing and discussing them. I give thanks for specific instances of His providence in the past.
I ask forgiveness, but only to the degree I am willing to forgive others. If I have a problem, I discuss it in detail.
If I am facing any particular temptations, I discuss them and ask God to help me resist them. If I have recently survived any tough tests, I discuss them and thank God that He gave me the power to overcome them.
I tell God about the evil things that frighten me, and ask Him to deliver me from them. I also give thanks for past rescues.
You get the idea. When you pray like this, it's amazing how time flies!
Kenneth W. Collins, Praying
________________________________3. I'm Sorry, Father
A Catholic priest working in an inner city was walking down an alley one evening on his way home when a young man came down the alley behind him and poked a knife against his back. "Give me your money," the young man said.
The priest opened his jacket and reached into an inner pocket to remove his wallet, exposing his clerical collar. "Oh, I'm sorry, Father," said the young man, "I didn't see your collar. I don't want YOUR money."
Trembling from the scare, the priest removed a cigar from his shirt pocket and offered it to the young man. "Here," he said. "Have a cigar."
"Oh, no, I can't do that," the young man replied, "I gave them up for Lent."_____________________
4. Let Us Play
My dear friends, let us play. Yes, you heard me correctly. Now is a time for play. In fact, today the church begins that time of the year when we do our most serious playing.
And playing is a serious business, you know. Ask any teacher of children. Better still, watch children at play. No wonder they are tired at the end of the day. They work hard at playing. They take it seriously.
Play is the child's laboratory for learning about life. Children who have never played at being grown-up tend to be handicapped in some way when they have to confront the actual experience. Boys who have never been allowed to play with dolls can hardly be expected to hold their own infants with ease and loving confidence. It has to be a later learning if it is ever learned at all. Play may be a more valuable tool for learning than all the educational resources manufactured by the professionals.
That is why, on this Ash Wednesday, the church summons us to a season of play. Our Lord has told us, if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must become as little children. And one of childhood's most important occupations is play.Am I wrong in my impression, however, that most of us do not come to church to play, that play is the furthest thing from our minds? Play seems foreign to our understanding of religion, and if it is to be found in church at all, it is best restricted to the nursery and the carefully supervised activities of the youth groups. H.L. Mencken defined a puritan as a person with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy. I know the puritan still comes to church with me from time to time. What about you?
Kendall K. McCabe and Michael L. Sherer
5. Recharging Your Batteries
An Italian newspaper recently carried a story about a young couple in Milan who seemed particularly devoted in their worship. The priest at a cathedral there reported that the pair spent an hour or more on a regular basis sitting before a statue of the Virgin Mary. Naturally, he assumed they were praying.
Turns out, this young couple was recharging their cell phone. They had noticed a stray electric cable sticking out of the wall behind the statue of the Virgin Mary. Whenever their phone's power supply dwindled, the young couple came to the church and re-charged it from the cable behind the Virgin Mary. The priest states that the young couple is welcome to use his church for this purpose.
We talk about coming to church to "re-charge our batteries," but this is ridiculous. What looked to the unobservant eye like an act of piety was actually a self-serving ploy to save money. This young couple was using the church for their own needs. And we're shocked, shocked, I tell you--until we realize that we may be guilty of the same mistake.
__________________________________6. A Walking Children's Sermon
The Rev. Timothy J. Kennedy tells a wonderful true story that is perfect for Ash Wednesday. It was told to him by a colleague, Pastor Chris Mietlowski. It concerned a baptism that Mietlowski once performed on an infant named Eric. Mietlowski took Eric in his arms and traced the cross of Christ on Eric's forehead using a special anointing oil.
Following worship, Eric's family celebrated with a big backyard party. Family and friends ate burgers and chips and played volleyball under a summer sun. Eric, being only six months old, was left to nap in his backyard stroller. When Mom got him up, whoops. Basted on Eric's forehead was the image of the cross. Mom had forgotten to wash Eric's face following his baptism, and the oil that the pastor had traced onto his forehead acted the opposite of a sun screen. The Cross of Christ was imprinted on Eric's forehead. "For several weeks until it completely disappeared," says Rev. Kennedy, "that cross was a wonderful reminder as to the meaning of Baptism and a reminder that the Cross of Jesus was 'written' upon Eric's forehead."
And what a powerful witness it was, says Rev. Kennedy. "Eric's Mom and Dad had to explain the cross to the pediatrician, to the neighbors, to the stranger in the grocery store. For a few weeks, Eric was nothing less than a [living] children's sermon. It was only a bit of a sunburn to be sure, but [it was] the best basting a child can have to be marked with the cross of Christ! And why not? That cross is to be the foundation of that child's life."
If I read the little book of Joel right, God's desire is not that we wear a cross on our forehead, but that it be basted on our hearts. "Rend your heart and not your garments," says Joel 2:23. That's much harder to do, isn't it? It's much easier to rend your clothes than to rend your heart. It's much easier to wear a cross around your neck than it is to bear it daily in everything you do.
Timothy J. Kennedy
7. Pancake Day
Every once in a while a whimsical story makes the news. Some years ago, the Associated Press carried a story about a woman in Olney, England, named Dawn Gallyot who defied snow and a biting wind to beat seven other women to the finish line in the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake race. In her first race, the 38-year-old schoolteacher made the 415-yard dash from a pub in the market square to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul with a pancake and a frying pan in her hand in 73 seconds. That was 9.5 seconds slower than the previous year's pace. Each woman must flip a pancake in the frying pan at the start and at the finish of the race. The record is 58 seconds. Mrs. Gallyot reportedly wore a traditional headscarf and apron, but opted for modern running shoes.
Shrove Tuesday, known in England as Pancake Day, is traditionally the last day for merrymaking before the start of Lent. Pancakes are thought to be a good way to get in the eggs and fat that faithful church people were supposed to give up for Lent. Legend has it that the Olney race started in 1445 when a housewife, dashing to get to church on time, arrived at the service clutching in her hand a frying pan with a pancake still in it.
The pancake race is but one of many traditions that have grown up around the season of Lent. New Orleans' Mardi Gras is another - one last blowout before a season of denial...