As on so many of our most significant holy days, on Ash Wednesday we are challenged to try to integrate a couple of at least seemingly unrelated ideas and rituals.
The first is the “Invitation to a Holy Lent,” which offers the context that this season began as a time of preparation for baptism, and a time when those who had been “separated from the body of the faithful” by “notorious sins” were “reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”
But rather than sitting in some kind of “I told you so” judgment, the early church saw this as an opportunity for the entire community to reconnect with Christ’s “message of pardon and absolution,” and “the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”
There are a lot of ands in those words Mother Kate will read in a few minutes. Baptism and reconciliation, penitence and forgiveness, pardon and absolution, repentance and faith. Why this insistence on pairing ideas, on balancing out our liturgy. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could think about one thing at a time?
I’m not so sure. Let’s consider another unusual element of this service. After we’ve received our ashes, we will work our way through Psalm 51 and pray together the Litany of Repentance. It can be an overwhelming experience, as some quick excerpts might help illustrate.
There’s verse 6 of the psalm: “Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth / a sinner from my mother’s womb.” Whoa, lot to unpack there, even if we don’t take the psalmist literally. Or how about this item from the litany: “We have been deaf to your call to serve.” One glance at my calendar certainly makes that point to me. And here’s a confession that’s bound to have a banner year all across the political spectrum: “[F]or uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.”
I don’t know about you, but the longer I sit with all that is wrapped up in the middle section of this liturgy, the more tempted I am to despair. To wallow, even.
The reason we need the balance of all those ands is clear from all our readings: no wallowing. That is not the point of this season. Not even a little bit.
Just take it from St. Paul: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So that we might become the righteousness of God. I don’t know exactly what that means, but clearly God has more important work for us in this season of examination and preparation than to wallow in what holds us back. If we find ourselves amid some uncomfortable truth, our task is to remember that this knowledge will be a key to our growth in love.
Seen through this lens, even Jesus’s admonition about practicing our piety before others becomes a call to skip the moroseness and move on to the thanksgiving and amendment of life: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” Yes, wallowing can feel like an end in itself, but it binds us rather than freeing us.
Penitence and forgiveness, baptism and reconciliation, pardon and absolution, repentance and faith. Let’s go ahead and add crucifixion and resurrection, death and life. The ands are what keep the difficult aspects of this season in perspective and give it its proper meaning. The ands keep pulling us toward God, helping us resist the urge to stay in orbit around ourselves. The ands say to us clearly and persistently: the point isn’t your sins, it’s that God wants you to be free from the weight of them.
Maybe you’ll need a reminder of that balance, and of that pull of hope, throughout these forty days. Maybe you’ll just need a chuckle. Either way, in those moments I suggest a YouTube search for “Monty Python – God,” wherein you will hear the following:
GOD: Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! [God calls down. The king’s company drops to their knees.] Oh, don’t grovel! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling.
GOD: And don’t apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it’s
“sorry this” and “forgive me that” and “I’m not worthy.” What are you
ARTHUR: I’m averting my eyes, oh Lord.
GOD: Well, don’t. It’s like those miserable Psalms—they’re so depressing. Now knock it off!
ARTHUR: Yes, Lord.
Yes, the Pythons are a bit hard on the psalms, and yes, this and sounds more like an or. Still, I’m not really kidding about this strategy, if you think you’re someone who needs it. For some of us the temptation to grovel is almost overwhelming when we are confronted by a full and honest view of the challenges in our lives: the ways we need to grow, the ways we cling to old habits, the ways we shut out God and others, and yes the incontrovertible fact that we are dust and shall return to same.
So “to make a right beginning of repentance,” I invite you, when you receive your ashes, to look for the and in the midst of that experience.
Perhaps you need the reminder that your creator who made you from dust is in every moment sustaining you as well. Perhaps you’re ready for the liberating experience of lowering your defenses for a time, of letting go of the control we all crave and cling to.
Perhaps those ashes are meant to teach you that the dirty mess of our lives is holy precisely because it is messy. It’s so easy to forget we’re all struggling to do our best amid circumstances that pull us in many directions.
If you have trouble remembering the and these forty days, and even if the Monty Python trick helps, think about this happy coincidence: The mark on our foreheads today will be a cross, of course, but maybe it’s also a plus sign. In this equation, that doesn’t have to mean adding one more thing to our busy lives. It does mean adding an awareness of the hope and peace and joy and wholeness that are Christ’s great gift to us.
So remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return AND and to dust you shall return. AND Remember that you are precious in God’s sight. Remember that you are precious in God’s sight.