Good evening – and welcome to our service of worship marking the beginning of Lent.
The church I grew up never once hosted an Ash Wednesday service. In fact, they were vehemently opposed to the idea, saying it was too morbid, too ritualistic, too – well – Catholic. Year after year, I would watch my Catholic classmates come to school marked with ash on their forehead and I quietly wondered what it would be like to have ashes cling to my forehead.
I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but it wasn’t until last year when I was serving as a student intern here at Pilgrimage that I took part in my first Ash Wednesday service. And as much as I wished I could have experienced the imposition of ashes long before that point, the absence of it in my life gave me 24 years to think about why I – as a protestant, as a member of the United Church of Christ, as someone who experiences God in the ordinary – wanted to take part in this ritual.
In a very basic sense of the service, Ash Wednesday is about remembering our own mortality. It’s not supposed to be uplifting or cheerful. We don’t bring in the brass and splash the sanctuary with poinsettias and lilies. We came from the dust of the earth and the ashes clinging to our foreheads remind us that – in the same way that Christ clung on the cross – we are all mortal. We will all return to the dust of the earth.
But what does that mean for us, today? What does that mean for each and every one of us as we enter into this 2010 Lenten season? Seasons of the Spirit, a lectionary based educational and worship resource that we use at Pilgrimage, described Ash Wednesday in the following way: In many traditions around the world, the time just before Lent is a time of trying our other identities, wearing masks, a carnival. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a time of inner revealing. We confront the reality that sometimes our prayers are efforts to show God our best sides, rather than our most broken selves. It is a time to unveil to our own awareness the true contours of our hearts, including the shadowy parts. We see and wear ashes not only in grief for our mortality, but also in a sense of freedom. In God’s loving way, forgiveness, justice, and renewal aren’t all up to our efforts and goodness. Our spiritual work is to make all dimensions of life and community available to the renewing love of the Holy One.
Tonight, when I receive my ashes, I won’t be the same person that received ashes last year. I’ve changed, I’ve grown; maybe for the better, who knows? But the beauty of who we are as Christians is that every year we get a fresh start to re-experience God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The beauty of who we are as members of the United Church of Christ is that no matter who we are or where we are on our journey through life, we are welcomed at this altar and invited to feel the ashes on our skin.
Is Ash Wednesday supposed to remind us of our mortality? Yes – but that is not all that it is designed to do. It is designed to remind us that even though we are all entering this journey through Lent from different places, emotions and periods in our lives, we all enter together. We are connected by the ashes that cling to us, by the grace of God shown as Jesus clung on the cross and by the hope we have that Jesus’ message of shalom will one day be peace on earth.
Today denominational barriers are ripped down as Christians all over the world wear ashes together. Differences in race, gender, age and class are gone because the ashes we wear are all the same. We walk into this Lenten season together. No matter who you are, no matter what your journey looks like right now – here, at this altar, with this ash – we all walk together.
Let us worship God.