What in the world am I doing here, Lord. I’m a Baptist!! It’s only the second time I’ve observed Ash Wednesday – the other visit maybe five years ago. A new friend gave me a copy of her book Love Beyond Degree – reflections to ready your heart for Easter a few weeks ago and I’ve been saving it for this day, the beginning of the Lenten Season. It just seems fitting that I attend a service where the day is marked out solemn, a day where I am asked to remember what He paid for my redemption.
I sit quietly among the smattering of people in the 8 o’clock service. I crave the solitude. For me it is a necessary heart prep for the season of Easter. Else I will sail right on through, maybe thinking of baskets, eggs, and colored grass, rather than what Easter is really all about. After all, I didn’t grow up in this tradition and probably looked upon the observance as some sort of cultish practice. I acknowledge my deep desire for this quiet, candle-lit morning.
The procession of the cross carried on a tall pole followed by the priest (a woman) and the other attendants comes down the center aisle in silence. Usually this part of an Episcopal service is conducted with great fanfare and majestic music, but today we are preparing ourselves to look inward, to ask hard questions, to quiet the shouting voices that drive our days. I notice that the cross is also shrouded in purple cloth, tied with a white bow. Purple symbolizes both the pain and suffering that led to the crucifixion of Jesus, but also pictures the suffering of humanity and the world under sin. Conversely, it is the accepted color of royalty and so anticipates that through the suffering and death of Christ there comes a resurrection and hope of new life which even Baptists celebrate on Easter Sunday.
What’s the Purpose of Lent?
Over the last years I’ve realized that in the evangelical, non-liturgical, churches to which I’ve linked myself, we begin our Christian heritage at Luther’s Reformation. Outside of a few references to “the early church” we ignore the centuries of historical practice of our faith and of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve come to believe it’s pretty ignorant of us, but for the most part, we haven’t known anything different. Lent, I come to find out, is a call to “Remember you are dust and to the dust you shall return.” This is what Rev. Elizabeth Myers says later in the service when she makes the sign of the cross on my forehead in dark ash. I enter a time of humility before God, and bear this symbol of mourning that dates back millenniums to Job.
Why has it taken me so long to get this?
I reflect on the consequences of sin that I witness daily and ask what needs to change in my life if I am to be fully Christian. Later I read that in the early church ashes were not offered to everyone but only marked the foreheads of those who made pubic confession of sin and sought to be restored to the fellowship of the community at the Easter service.
What sins do I need to confess today, Father?
When Elizabeth gets to the confession of sin found in the Book of Common Prayer, I find many answers to that question. In particular, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven. Have mercy on us, Lord.”
If this is the rule, I have sinned. Not once, but many times over. This prayer covers all those things I so quickly forget, the things I overlook, ignore, deny, and hide. I am guilty.
Later, when I’m home again reflecting on what I just experienced, I hear a loud noise that sounds like a tree has just fallen on the roof. A flash of remembrance comes and I run to the TV to watch the last descent of Apollo’s Discovery, making her final landing at Kennedy Space Center. It’s a bittersweet moment for Floridians and the entire nation as we watch the huge spaceship land and come to a stop on the runway. Attendants go out to mark the exact spot.
Then I think of my mark – not just the one on my forehead today – but the mark I’ll leave when I come to my final spot in the road. I wonder if anyone will remember me then.
And so today I begin my 40 day pilgrimage of Lent. I will be mindful of what Jesus encountered during His last days on this earth, I will be mindful of what Starla Shattler wrote in her meditations that call me to repentance and awareness of sin. I will remember that I came from dust and to dust I will return. I will recall the final words of today’s service:
May the wounded feet of Jesus walk with you to the end of the road.