A Meditation for Ash Wednesday
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Ash Wednesday is a little bit like attending your own funeral. The intention, however, is not to dwell morbidly on the fact of our certain death (though there’s never any harm in holding that reality in front of ourselves). The reason for the imposition of ashes on our foreheads with the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return” is to set the tone for the entire Lenten journey with Jesus into the desert wilderness where we discover what gives life and what drains it away. The whole thrust of the Ash Wednesday liturgy can really be summed up by the rather paradoxical statement—“Die before you die, and you won’t die when you die.” What on earth could that mean? Let’s unpack it a little bit.
First a reminder of some basic Christian anthropology. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and whole point of the Christian life is to journey from image to likeness. “God became man than man might become God,” as St. Athanasius (defender of orthodoxy at Nicea and author of the Life of Anthony) put it rather boldly. Image is our potential in Christ, our capacity for Christ-likeness. Everyone, without exception, possesses this potential. Whether we exercise this potential, however, is another matter. The basic path, the way that we walk as followers of Jesus, is through the co-operation with God’s grace to move from image to likeness. We put on the mind of Christ—but, in truth, even the words “put on” can give us the wrong idea because the mind of Christ isn’t something that comes from outside that we have to earn through good behavior as payment or reward. Putting on the mind of Christ is really more about becoming who we already are, being what we are made to be. So all the various and tradition-honored disciplines—fasting, almsgiving, prayer—are meant to show us who we are beneath the accumulated layers of who we think we are.
So who do we think we are? Often we think who we are can be summed up in by our family lineage and bloodline—“I’m a ninth generation Petersen from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.” Or we think we are our job, our zip code, our bank account, our education, or the number of highlights on our resume. Sometimes we think who we are is related to how well we perform and the praise and accolades we get from other people—our sense of self depends on getting everything right and things coming off without a hitch. Sometimes we think that who we are is dependent upon our good looks (I don’t have to worry about that one, thankfully)—and as we diminish with age we die a thousand deaths before they finally put us in the ground. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that who we are depends on our ability to get people to do our bidding and exert power over them.
Now the trouble with the ideas of who we are, is not just that they aren’t true, but that they disappoint (but only 100% of the time). That’s why Ash Wednesday and the entire season of Lent is not some moribund affair meant to inspire mawkish gloominess. Ash Wednesday is paradoxically about how to be truly happy. It’s in-your-face radical surgery meant to show us the only real place that will bring us the kind of peace and contentment that isn’t dependent upon external circumstances and can withstand the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” When we have the ashes imposed upon our foreheads, the implicit recognition is that these other forms of seeking ultimate, lasting happiness are bogus, and bankrupt. The observance of a holy lent, with its injunction to repentance, is not admonition to walk around glum-faced for forty days and then celebrate with champagne at the Easter Vigil when we can drop the act. The invitation to the observance of a holy lent is inseparable from the only invitation that’s ever mattered—the invitation to “enjoy God” as St. Augustine defined the purpose of the life. The invitation to observe a holy Lent is all about realizing, making real, our participation in the very life of God, joining the wedding feast of the Lamb to which each person, without exception, is actually already at. It’s a funny sort invitation in that way—it’s like opening a card that reads—“This is just a reminder that you are presently attending the greatest party ever thrown that’s been going on since the foundation of world. How come you aren’t dancing?”
The period of Lent, which the liturgy of Ash Wednesday opens before us, is really all about seeing the various substitute ways we seek lasting happiness in that which is passing and transitory. Again, the aim isn’t to use this knowledge as another weapon in our arsenal of self-blame, shame, and criticism, but to lead us, like the Israelites, through the wilderness to freedom. We miss the point of the gospel if we associate the land of milk and honey with a geographic location and argue over who was there first. The whole point of the outward mapping of the journeys in scripture is that enact the journey of the individual and the community towards happiness, and peace that passes understanding—what we call union, communion, and the enjoyment of God.
Israel’s journey is a good one, too, for understanding the purpose, the end (telos), or goal, of Lenten observance and all Christian ascesis. The call is always from bondage to freedom: bondage under Pharaoh to freedom. And it takes the wide-open wildernesses and deserts (40 years of them) to show the Israelites all the subtle and not-so subtle ways that they resist the freedom that us their birthright, and fashion substitute freedoms that disappoint one after the next: “Maybe if we retuned to Egypt we’d be happy? Maybe if we killed Moses things would be better? Maybe if we had not just manna from heaven delivered to our doorstep, and Perrier bursting out of a rock, but a little meat to go with it as well? And would you mind if that dropped from the sky, too? It’s awfully uncomfortable to be out searching for food in the heat of the day.” We’ve all got our Pharaohs to whom we go crawling back, and the invitation is to finally call Pharaoh what he actually is—a death-dealing despot intent on keeping us enslaved. When we finally see and release the various ways we’ve been under Pharaoh’s thrall—looking for happiness in a place whose only guarantee is more misery—we start to understand what it might be to “Die before we die.” We die to those sham happinesses and discover that true happiness—that doesn’t collect dust, or rust, or change with whomever happens to be president—is found by setting our minds on the Kingdom, the Kingdom gifted to each of us that dwells, in secret in the inner room of the heart.
Our gospel for today skips verses 6-7, which for my money offer the best advice for what it means to observe a holy Lent: go into your inner room, shut the door on all the different ways you’ve tried to make yourself happy under your steam and by your well-intentioned schemes, stop talking so much, stop worrying about all the things you think are going to make you happy and just be. Listen. Listen to God in Jesus who speaks in the silence of your heart. Don’t believe all those Pharaohs who tell you you aren’t enough, or that your worth depends on how much you produce, or whether people find your smile fetching. Be still. Become poor. Become little. Let it all go and don’t hold onto anything. Fall into the Lord. And in the stillness, in the secret room of your heart, you’ll see, that what you seek is already given. Now is the day of salvation as Paul tells us. Having nothing, becoming poor, you are rich possessing the only thing that sates your hunger for depth and meaning—God as God is, and God alone. So Ash Wednesday might start out being like attending your own funeral, but it suddenly looks a lot more like your birthday. Happy Ashes.