Excerpted from the Council’s 2019 Lenten Reflection Guide for Lectionary Year C.
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my
Fat Tuesday’s revelers, if they are serious about faith observances, traditionally wake from indulgence in food and drink to face the cold water splash of Ash Wednesday. A serious punctuation mark to the morning after parades and parties, the ashes ground from last year’s palms that celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem are then ground into the foreheads of the faithful, in the form of a cross, by the thumb of one who has already received them. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
What is this dust? Nothing less than your life and how you choose to live it. Choices and opportunities come and go. The consequences of your decisions line up and make a difference in your own life and in the lives of those whom God places in your path. Private choices show up in public and add value to, or detract from, the essence of a community.
Children in the last century loved the book series, “Choose Your Own Adventure,” because it offered multiple choices for the characters at the end of each page. Children could make decisions right in the middle of reading the story. And the consequences of those choices showed up immediately on the next page. In our cultural context, the ability to choose for oneself is given as a right and a promise. Each person and each congregation express their choices both internally, as belief and faith, and externally, as action and speech. Those consequences also can show up immediately, in a Facebook, Instagram, or other social media post.
Having a choice is a privilege for those who have opportunities. While we often overlook our own opportunities, we are adept at pointing out the poor decisions made by the unprivileged. That cold water splash heralding the dawn of Ash Wednesday brings one face to face with one’s own choices and their consequences. The season of Lent that it hails offers the opportunity to make new choices, new decisions, and to line up our thoughts in a different direction as we unfold our own adventures.
Belief and action become intermingled to create in each person the ability to live, love, think, pray, and worship. The call to love both enemies and friends by Jesus sometimes stirs up anxiety, fear, confusion, and anger in its universal demand for both sharing ourselves, our possessions and sharing the intimacy of relationship with both God and neighbor.
How do we share possessions in an unconditional way within a culture of plenty while scarcity is claimed? How do we share intimacy within a culture that feeds on conflicts in values, politics, and plenty? How do we share a space with each other, both friend and foe, when names are lashed out, untruths are manufactured, and social media is rife with unsocial discourse?
In the lectionary of scriptures for Ash Wednesday, we find in the call of God an emergent appeal to the prophets, Isaiah and Joel, to point out the choices that were being made by God’s people. God tells Isaiah to use his loud voice to speak to the people; their devotion and worship, both fastidious and false are being observed, “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” (Isaiah 58:2)
God tells Joel, “Blow the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain!” (Joel 2:1) It is a call to the community to sanctify the congregation.
The call in Isaiah’s time was to deny themselves, fasting not for the reward they sought from God but as an act of repentance from their unjust ways. God observes, “Look you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to strike with a wicked fist.” (Isaiah 58:3) God observes that broken boundaries are also physically violent.
The Rev. Lauren Winner, an Episcopal priest and Duke Divinity professor, writes of the material nature of the dust being placed on the foreheads of those who bring themselves to a place of repentance and prayer:
What ministers with their ashes are offering is a bodily marker of God’s entry into our death. The ashes… let me name truths that most days I cannot or will not name — that I have sinned; also, that I have a body, and I am going to die. To walk around all day with a cross on your head is to walk around in a body inscribed with death. It is also, oddly, to walk around inscribed with hope — the hope that comes through Jesus’ having joined us in our mortality.(Winner, Lauren F.: Sojourners Magazine, Why Ash Wednesday Belongs Out of the Church and Out on the Streets, 2-22-2012)
David’s Psalm prepares us to receive the ashes by giving us the words to pray, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love… wash me thoroughly… and cleanse me from my sin… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:1-17)
If you choose, in your faith adventure, to accept the cold water splash of Ash Wednesday, you will confess, repent, and begin again, with the forgiveness and grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ. As the ashes are placed upon your forehead, remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.
Choose your own adventure, turning toward God’s vision of love, justice, and mercy not only for yourself, but for those you judge offensive, heart-breaking, and despicable. Live into the consequences of living and loving those whom God puts before you, with the grace and mercy of God within your heart and mind.
May you find courage and strength for the journey as you accept the invitation from God to return to God this Lent in prayer and reflection. As the scripture asks, “Will you share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, will you cover them, and not hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:7). Will you accept the invitation to go into the public places to stand and work for justice and equity so that “your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday?” (Isaiah 58:10).
For then the ancient promise of God will become real, “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:10-11).
Prayer: Ever loving and forgiving God, you draw us to yourself that we would find new life and hope. Open our hearts and minds, that we would fearlessly seek those thoughts and actions pulling us away from you so that we confess those things and ask forgiveness from you, and from those we have harmed. Enable us to accept your grace, love, and freedom that you have granted to us through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.