Ash Wednesday 2019
A Meditation for Ash Wednesday
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
One of the interesting things about the Ash Wednesday liturgy is that the ashes imposed on our heads with those unforgettable words—“remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”—are the burnt and ground up palms we waved on Palm Sunday. The implication is clear—something has to be broken down, surrendered, removed, burnt up and reduced to ash, that we might welcome Christ into the Jerusalem of the heart.
That’s why we can say that Ash Wednesday has as its central purpose and thrust what it means to be truly happy, what it means to live a life of fullness, abundance, and joy. Yes, Ash Wednesday can feel a little like attending our own funeral, but in the economy of God’s grace the death we are invited to participate in is for the ultimate purpose of bringing us to new life—not at some later date, but right here and right now in the midst of our so-called ordinary life. It seems at first like our funeral, but in reality, it’s our birthday.
As human beings we get turned around about where to look for the happiness for which we are made. The temptation is always look to the outward circumstances of our life—we build our houses on the shaky foundations of safety and security, power and control, affection and esteem. Possessions, power, and prestige. It’s not that we are “bad” people for looking for happiness in these places, but that they will never yield the kind of result for which we are looking. Ultimate satisfaction on our own terms slips through our grasp like powdered ash.
You’ll recall the story of Nasiruddin, the Sufi sage who lost his house key. One of his disciples encountered him on his hands and knees looking through the trash in the gutter under a streetlamp and asked, “Teacher, what are you looking for?” “Why, I lost my housekey!” “Where did you lose it?” “In the house.” “Why, then, are you looking out here under the streetlamp?” “Because the light is better!”
Ash Wednesday is a reminder of where to look for the happiness for which we are created. We’ve been conditioned by our culture to look for happiness in the things, in relationships, in pleasures—things outside ourselves that we have to work hard to acquire. The interesting thing about that outward search is that it never ends. It’s exhausting. What we acquire from outside ourselves never fully satisfies. The boss praises our good job, but sooner or later we’re back to thinking we’re no good. We get a little rush from the new phone with all the bells and whistles, but sooner or later we find ourselves looking longingly at our at co-worker’s new gadget. We are tossed to and fro by the changes and chances of this life and the peace for which we yearn, for which we are actually made, eludes us.
When the ashes of yesterday’s palms are imposed on our forehead, they are a reminder that the happiness for which we seek is to be found in God and God alone. More than that, they are a reminder that happiness for which we seek has already been gifted to us, poured into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, free, unmerited and undeserved. We are sitting at the banquet of divine love already all the while complaining about not getting an invitation in the mail. Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, that “See, now is the acceptable time; see now is the day of salvation!” Now! Not later is the acceptable time. Paul is reminding us that on the ultimate level, there is no barrier between us and God. Our perceived separation from God—the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth is the result of looking under the streetlamp for something we lost in the house.
The prophet Isaiah tells us that we should seek the Lord where he wills to be found, that we should look for God where we are most likely to find Him. And where is that? Well in the self-forgetful worship of Him in liturgy. In the reception of the sacraments. In the regular, daily dwelling upon his word in Holy Scripture. In daily prayer. In serving others in the spirit of sacrificial love. And so when those ashes are imposed upon us it’s a reminder of both the futility of looking for ultimate and lasting happiness in that which inevitably fades and passes away, and of where we should properly look.
That’s why we traditionally drop one habit and take up some discipline during Lent. We drop one of the myriad ways we habitually, unconsciously look for lasting happiness outside ourselves—the ways we distract ourselves with food, drink, sex, media—from the anxious quiver of being that burbles up whenever there’s a break in the action. And we take on some discipline that helps to dispose us to the gift. Perhaps we make a little space for stillness, silence, and simplicity in our busy lives, some time to appreciate the staggering fact that God’s love for us has been poured into our hearts. We make a little space for God to get at us, for the realization that “in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute,” nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Ash Wednesday is a reminder that it is in subtracting, simplifying, and letting go that we actually come to fullness of life. The lifestyle consultants who make hay by preaching the gospel of decluttering have wised up to this simple fact. Small is beautiful. In letting go, not storing up, we find ourselves rooted and grounded in that place where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. It dawns on us that there just might be something to Paul’s experience of being poor, yet being rich. As having nothing and yet possessing everything. Perhaps those after just nice sounding words after all.
So Ash Wednesday is this curious, seemingly paradoxical mixture of sadness and joy. We might say it’s a day of sorrowful joy and joyful sorrow. There’s sadness over the ways we’ve looked for love in all the wrong places—wasted this precious human life on the pursuit of things that will never ultimately satisfy and wounded ourselves and others in the process. But there is also the joyful recognition that in the surrendering of those pursuits, we begin to sense, perhaps for the first time, where true happiness resides. And our communion music for today from the shape-note tradition captures this perfectly. It’s a sprightly almost joyful melody that sings of how “Your sparkling eyes and blooming cheeks/must wither like the blasted rose;/The coffin, earth, and winding sheet/will soon your limbs enclose.” As if Happy Birthday were sung to tune of Beethoven’s 5th. It’s that holding together of the fleeting and tenuous fragility of our brief span of years and the joy that results from the recognition of living from the ground that brings true happiness that captures the oddity, and the nuanced and subtly truth of what Ash Wednesday sets before us.
Ultimately, however, the happiness that is offered to us on this day is not for ourselves alone. As Isaiah reminds us, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Our prayer, our fasting, our almsgiving, our repentance are not to be heard in the context of our usual Western individualist framework. Learning where to look and realizing with a rueful chuckle where not to sets us on the firm ground of God and God’s love for us. Not simply so that we can be free, but that having recognized our inherent freedom in Christ we might be that trumpet voice of freedom to others—water to wash, bread to feed, oil to heal, and wine to slake the thirst of the parched.
Repentance—turning and returning us to the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth-- is always so that we might be more and more free to be the love that springs from that source for others, increasingly clarified transmitters of that light that shines in the darkness that no darkness can overcome. So Happy Ash Wednesday. And don’t fret—the only thing you have to lose over the next forty days is that which keeps you from tasting freedom. The only thing you have to lose is everything that isn’t life in Him who is nothing other than love serving love in love.