Ash Wednesday

AshWedToday we leave ordinary time to enter into the journey of Lent through the desert. The desert is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of our seemingly secure and structured world, where things begin to crack.

We begin this desert journey marked with ashes, the sign of our mortality. There is wisdom in these ashes. If you have ever been near death or had a loved one die, you know the clarity that an awareness of our bodily limits can bring. How suddenly what is most important in life rises to the surface. This is the invitation of Lent, to realign our priorities. In remembering that we will die, we are called to remember God who is the source of our life.

When we are marked with ash on our foreheads we hear the invitation to “repent and believe the good news.” One of the Hebrew words for repent is nacham. The root of this word means “to draw a deep breath” as well as to be deeply moved to a feeling of sorrow. The Greek word for repent is metanoia which means ‘to reconsider’. But it is also a compound word made up of the words, "meta" and "nous." "Meta" means "transformation" and "nous" means "soul." So, as we begin this journey we are invited to nothing less than a "transformation of the soul."

But how are we to be transformed and believe the good news? How are we to have hope when our lives are faced with the struggle of trying to make our way in the world, when loved ones face illness, when daily we hear news of Iraq descending further and further into violence and turmoil and we are still at war. Certainly our journey through Lent is toward the season of Easter, a season of resurrection, but how do we get from here to there?

The prophet Joel offers some insight in our first reading. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Even now, in the midst of death and destruction, loss and pain, God calls to us. Not for a half-hearted acknowledgement, but to return to God with our whole heart, with the fullness of who we are. Return with fasting and weeping and mourning. This is a call to the practice of lament.

Each one of us carries grief, sorrow that has perhaps gone unexpressed or been stifled or numbed. Each of us has been touched by pain and suffering at some time. Yet we live in a culture that tells us to move on, to get over it, or to shop or drink our way through sorrow. Or to fill our moments with the chatter of TV and radio and ipods so that we never have to face the silent desert of our hearts. It is the same kind of attitude that forces us to answer “fine” when others ask how we are and we really aren’t. Even our churches can often try to move us too quickly to a place of hope without fully experiencing the sorrow that pierces us.

Why do we work so hard to resist our tears? Jesus wept. We see him in John’s gospel shedding tears over the death of his friend Lazarus, in Luke we see him weeping over the whole city of Jerusalem because of their indifference.

What is the sorrow you carry with you today? Is it because of personal loss? A death, a job lost, a broken relationship, or an illness? Is it sorrow over the war that rages on thousands of miles from us? Is it because of the 18,000 children who will die today because of preventable hunger? Is it the ongoing racism that devastates communities or the religious hostilities that divide nations? Is it the thousands of people who will die in Africa today because of AIDS? I invite you to take just a moment to be in touch with the grief that you carry with you.

We resist feeling our pain because our society discourages it. Even without the absence of permission to feel sorrow, how many of us have the time and space it requires to adequately mourn our losses? Beyond the brief sound bites we receive in the news each night, where is the space and resources we need to process our sorrow?

This is where the profound wisdom in our tradition of lament enters. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with this prayer of crying out to God. Lament gives form and voice to our grief, a space to wail and name what is not right in the world in the context of prayer.

The Protestant theologian Walter Brueggemann writes about the need for lament in his book The Prophetic Imagination. He says that people can only dare to envision a new reality when they’ve been able to grieve, to scream out, to let loose the cry that has been stuck in their throats for so long. That cry, the expression of that grief, says Brueggemann, “is the most visceral announcement that things are not right.” Only then can we begin to “to nurture, nourish, and evoke a new consciousness,” a new vision. We so desperately need a new way of seeing the world.

The prayer of lament is first and foremost truth-telling, it begins by challenging the way things are. Lament names that something is not right in the world. This pain, this suffering should not be. It helps us to name the lies we have been living and participating in.

Lament opens us up to a new vision of how God is present to our suffering. We call on the God who weeps with us, whose groans are our own, and we express our hope in God’s tender care.

Lament is a form of resistance: We allow ourselves to be present to God in our brokenness and resist the cultural imperative to be strong and hold it all together. We resist cultural practices of denying death through our worship of eternal youth. We stop pretending everything is okay and put an end to worshipping the status quo.

Lament puts us in solidarity with those who are suffering and schools us in compassion. Only when we have become familiar with the landscape of our own pain can we then enter into the suffering of another. Lament moves us beyond our own narrow perspectives.

In the prayer of lament we help give voice to the oppressed, to hidden suffering, the suffering in silence that happens because pain takes our language away. The prophet Joel says to blow the trumpet and call the assembly, because lament is the work of the community. Gathered together we say that the pain is being heard, that it is valid. Our community votes with its tears that there is suffering worth weeping over.

Finally, lament is the release of power, God’s power. The power that is the soul-transforming call of repentance. The paradox of our faith is that we must first surrender fully to these ashes, into the desert places of brokenness, before Easter and its promise of resurrection can fully enter and fill us. In our second reading, Paul invites us to be ambassadors of reconciliation. Lament invites in God’s reconciling and healing power.

During Lent my practice will be truth-telling. I will inhabit my places of grief, the sorrows I have resisted up until now, and allow my unspoken lament to rise up in me like fire. I will turn off the endless noise and chatter that distract me from those places where my heart has hardened. I will be in solidarity with those who have no voice and listen for their silent groans. I will trust along with our spiritual ancestors who wrote and sang the Psalms in the assembly, that when I go to the rawest, most vulnerable places, my soul is then transformed and I can answer the call to repentance with my whole heart.

This Lenten journey is for the sake of life and transforming power. It is not a second chance at New Year’s resolutions. It begins with the acknowledgment of that which deadens and kills. Justice, healing, repentance all begin in tears. They will not end there, but there is no detour on the desert journey to Holy Week.

In today's Gospel Jesus warns us against practices that are done for their visibility. He calls us to examine the integrity and intention of our actions. So I encourage you this Lent, to consider continuing to eat chocolate, but make intentional space for your grief. Give permission for others in your life to express their sorrows. Help to create an atmosphere in your communities that encourages prayer of lament. Think of a friend or acquaintance who has experienced a loss in the last few months and make time to ask them about their stories, and let them know they will be heard. Examine the subtle ways that your own actions participate in and perpetuate the pain of the world. Cry out in public ways, express your lament perhaps in letters to the newspaper and those in power. Refuse to say that everything is fine. Practice truth-telling.

Is our image of God big enough to imagine that God can embrace all of our pain? Can we trust that the God who cries out alongside us, whose cry is our own, will also transform us in that space of darkness? Do we not believe that Jesus entered fully into the experience of death before being resurrected?

The readings for this Friday begin with Isaiah chapter 58, calling us to “cry out full-throated and unsparingly.” It then goes on to name the kind of fasting that God desires of us which is to set free the oppressed, to share your bread with the hungry, to not turn your back on others in their need. And only then, Isaiah tells us, will your light break forth like the dawn.

-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts

(I was invited to give the homily at the Ash Wednesday service last year.  I offer it here this year because I think it is where I need to give some of my attention again this Lent.  To the right is a prayer scarf made for Ash Wednesday in response to the line: "Return to me with you whole hearts.")

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