Wednesday, March 05, 2014
Ashes to Ashes...Penitence and Mortality
For Christians, Ash Wednesday is...well...complicated. It is a day that we look forward to in many ways. Most people I know who come for the liturgy or who receive the imposition of ashes in a pastoral visit or setting look forward to that moment when I smudge ashes from burned palms left over from last year's Palm Sunday. It's an odd anticipation, isn't it? To have the priest press ashes onto your forehead while intoning, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," does not sound reassuring. And yet, to a person, when I impose ashes they express a deep sense of gratitude, and move away looking-somehow-just a bit more...connected.
In a culture where the concept of mortality is one to be avoided, even thwarted, we gather on this one day to instead embrace the reality that we are not forever. On this day of repentance, when many fast and most make a concerted attempt to get to church during the busy work/study week, we find that sense of mortality is actually able to enhance our awareness of life.
Penitence is more than just being sorry. It is also much more than acknowledging guilt or feeling guilty. Most folks I see rejecting penitence and organized religion out of hand are doing so because they perceive those calls to a penitential life as being suppressive or oppressive of the self. They feel like they are being forced into being and feeling sorry for being someone, or doing something, that makes God (as people interpret God) mad at them, personally. But as I said, penitence is more than just being sorry...it is a deep awareness that all is not as it should, or could, be when we look honestly at our choices as a community bound in relationship to each other and to God.
Penitence is accepting that we are hurt, and that we hurt each other, by our choices. It is a willing awareness that we are the ones who make decisions that draw us from the love of God, and that alienate us from our neighbors.
So, for one day out of the year, we make that sorrow and regret palpable and visible. We wear the ashes on our foreheads as a sign of penitence...and as an affirmation of community. It is a humbling thing to wear them...more humbling still to be called on to impose them. But in those ashes is a profound blessing, that no matter how broken we are (and we are ALL to some extent broken), we are also given forgiveness and a promise of healing grace.
This mortal life is not forever, but with that knowledge we are also assured in those ashes that nothing is really lost from God's creation. We may for a time know life, but we were ashes before and to them we will return....but we will never, ever truly be lost to God. Of that we are given clear assurance.