I’m already a little prone to melancholy. Sometimes I feel like I live life dancing in a minor key, so it’s probably not a surprise that I’m a bit partial to Ash Wednesday and Lent. It probably started because I like purple so much. And it’s hard not to love a season when Spring is on the other side, but it’s bigger, deeper, holier than that.
Ash Wednesday is certainly not convenient. It’s in the middle of the workweek, after all. I don’t know about responsible adults, but I can barely get my head wrapped around the mundane, let alone pause in the midst of it all to meditate on my mortality and figure out what to give up for the next six weeks.
This Wednesday was the first Ash Wednesday when the ashes settled into my own fingerprints. When I heard my own voice over and over again utter the truth: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The steadfast love of God is forever. When I met my eyes with the eyes of children, teenagers, elderly, friends old and young, and recognized face to face our own frailty. When I was struck in a new way the preciousness and the beauty of Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is different because throughout our singing and praying and scripture reading and listening we are talking about ourselves more than normal. And it’s not comfortable. Ash Wednesday is a day to honor, to acknowledge, even to celebrate our humanness. It is a celebration because we are released from any veil of independence or perfection. It is a day to celebrate that God did not create us to be perfect, that God did not create us to be independent, that God created us for God and God created us for one another.
We talk about our mortality in frank and honest ways. We sit in silence and we confess our frailty and our emptiness. It is a day to live into the reality of our brokenness and broken-heartedness. It’s a day to celebrate death, and yet to rest in the grace of God. While we are dust, God’s love is forever.
I also like Ash Wednesday because it is one of the few days when we so clearly and fittingly speak in the second person. You are dust. To dust you will return. When we offer the bread and the cup to one another during the celebration of the Eucharist, we name the body and the blood; we name the elements. On this day we name one another. We stand close – close enough to see fully each other’s imperfections – wrinkles, sun spots, smudged concealer, out-of-place hairs – and we name one another: you are dust. We look one another in the eyes and recognize the fragility of life and yet the grace that embraces and saves us all.
And we turn around, and walk out the doors into the season of Lent. It feels to me the most liberating day and season of all. (Which sounds pretty counterintuitive with all the focus on giving up things, denying ourselves.) For forty days and six Sundays we are called to do nothing else but show up and be broken, weak, and humble humans. The only work we have to do is open our hands and our hearts to the eternal love of God.
Recently, a friend of mine shared with me the orthodox description for Lent – the season of bright sadness. What a perfect juxtaposition (the Orthodox are good at juxtaposition, at holy tension). We are human. We are broken. And yet it all points to the reality of Easter. The already-but-not-yet truth that we live in the truth of a God Who Resurrects, and yet a world saturated in brokenness. Bright sadness, indeed.
And when from death I’m free,
I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.
And through eternity, I’ll sing on.