Ash Wednesday; March 1, 2017
The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
Trinity Episcopal Church, Newton Centre, MA
Welcome to the radical ritual that begins on Ash Wednesday and follows us, or leads us, as the case may be, into the wilderness of Lent. It’s radical because the whole notion of Ash Wednesday and the Holy Season of Lent are utterly at odds with the tenor and tone and fabric of our contemporary culture.
Our observance of Ash Wednesday is about our humility before God, and too before each other. It is the one day of the year when we publicly let down our self-sufficient guard. When we not only suspect ourselves to be broken and vulnerable, but admit and even proclaim our mortal contingency, our fallibility, and our own culpability in our transgressions against God and everything God has created. And we proclaim it boldly to the world with the imposition of a repentant smudge upon our foreheads. We may be accomplished and proficient in our work, empowered and admired in our communities, respected and revered by our friends and families and neighbors but we are none the less dust. No less from the dust and headed to dust than the lowliest urchin in Calcutta. From dust we have come and to dust we will all, every one of us, from the poverty stricken to the proletariat to the president, return. And it’s not religion, its science.
Nevertheless, we do not inhabit a culture that often acknowledges such scientific and existential equality, inalienable as it may be. We live in a culture that seems to insist on a sliding scale, a stratification, of worth based on factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with our status as children of a loving God…..who loves all children, and our capacity and commitment to love and mercy and justice and peace. And so we reward and value things that, in the end, do not matter any more than the dust from which we have come.
Likewise, we seem to be fixated on the exulted notion that “winning” is to be valued above everything else. That we are in some everlasting competition with everyone who is not us. And that our charge and challenge is to leave everyone who is not us, in the dust. Every time. To win at all costs. Elections. Ratings. Wars. Win. Win. Win. As though winning might defy and deny the dust that awaits. But of course it does not.
And still, winning is our way. We seem to be a culture of braggarts who do not even try to camouflage our boasting and bullying, our grasping and hording, our desire to dominate and diminish everyone who is not like us. I dare say an alien from another planet landing now in these United States of America, this One Nation Under God, would have a very different view of the posture of humanity than the posture that we are about to assume here before God on this Ash Wednesday; which is an anti-cultural posture of humility, and a recognition of our utter contingency on the re-issuance of the gift of life every day, every hour, every moment. Life is never, ever a given. Only death is.
And so my friends, we are about sink to our knees together, each of us equally fragile, each of us equally free to walk with Christ because each of us is nothing more or less than headed to dust. And so we are oddly empowered because we have nothing to lose…..and so very mysteriously, we are more empowered with nothing to lose than we ever were when we were “winning.” Because winning, most winning, is ontologically grounded in the refusal to give up….ever.
And that is where Lent comes in.Lent is all about losing. Lent is all about giving up.
Some of us spend quite a lot of time choosing something to “give up” for Lent. But in a minute we will ask for forgiveness and declare our intention, as a contingency of that forgiveness, to give up a whole slew of tendencies that come with our human condition: our pride, hypocrisy, impatience and our self-indulgent appetites; our exploitation of others for our own wealth, security, and self-aggrandizement; our intemperate love of worldly goods, our dishonesty in daily life and work, our blindness to human suffering, our indifference to injustice and cruelty, our contempt for those who are different from us, our waste and pollution of creation and thus our gross disrespect for all who will come after us.
Although this may sound a bit like my list of objections with our current political arena, it is not…. although, if the shoe fits…. But no, these are the words that we will use to acknowledge and atone for our own lofty and arrogant and ungodly aspirations as featherless bi-peds. Every one of us. These are our human transgressions, and so I am willing to bet big that they will feel familiar to each of us. Just as we have all come from dust, we all embody some degree of these human conditions.
And so instead of looking for token renunciations like losing the election weight that has gained on our hips (I might just speaking for myself), or answering our emails within a single news cycle (okay, again, maybe just me), or saying the rosary instead of swearing a blue streak when we are angry (I bet this one is not just me!), instead of looking for plums of personal improvement, instead of using Lent as our wellness coach, maybe we could give up some things that matter…..more….broadly. Maybe this Lent could truly be the start of something big.
This year, I am going to commit myself to giving up some things that are more in keeping with the prayer of penitence and forgiveness that we pray on Ash Wednesday. I am giving up sorrow and suffering. I am giving up poverty in this richest nation on earth. I am giving up mass incarceration. I am giving up selling automatic weapons to…anyone, and any guns to anyone who is mentally unfit to be a responsible gun owner. I am going to give up homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexism, racism, and every other dignity-squashing ism on the horizon. And while we are at it, I seriously think we should give up cancer and addictions of all kinds and Alzheimer’s. I invite you to join me in giving up cyber bullying, corporate greed and the notion that America ever was, is, or should be “first” at the expense of the rest of God’s creation. Let’s give up the notion that God has a preferential option for Americans, and claim the radical reality that America is a citizen of the world, one among many, with equally dignity-endowed and dust-threatened people.
But my friends, this list of the things that we could give up for Lent in accordance with our penitential prayer is far too long and hard to be realistic. This litany of pain and suffering that we need to give up, need to be done with, is so daunting, so seemingly impossible to accomplish, that sometimes all we can do is throw up our hands and give up altogether. Sometimes the sadness and the fear and the grief become so great that giving up is all that we are able to do…..the only choice we have, the only thing within our own control.
And that, my friends, is where the ashes come in. Ashes are all that remain when everything has been utterly burned to the ground.
And when we reach that stage, the stage where we have lost everything, when we do just give up on…. everything, that is when God has us just where God wants us. Not suffering. But the emptiness that usually follows the suffering. And when we reach that point where we are standing before God with nothing but God and dust to our name, that is precisely when the statement “I give up” ceases to be a threat, and mysteriously, because that’s the way God works, becomes a freedom. When we realize that we are dust, we are free. We realize that we are more powerful than we have ever been, because we have nothing to lose. It’s a paradox to be sure.
The last resort of giving up on everything yields the freedom to not give up. Go figure.
When we have relinquished all of our earthly acquisitions, all of our privilege and power and prosperity, all of that we have worked to acquire as individuals, when we have nothing left to lose, we can truly give up the debilitating fear that we are not getting anywhere, that we are not winning….enough. Paradoxically, losing it all frees us to…gain everything. Dust is empowering.
We must lose our life to gain it.
And that, I think is the deep and profound experience of this holy day. Ash Wednesday. It is the one day in the course of the year when we stop and acknowledge with our flesh that we are truly one with creation and with each other. It has always seemed a shame to me that there is but one Ash Wednesday a year. Speaking for myself, I could use a more regular reminder.
And so this Lent I am planning to observe Ash Wednesday….every week. I am planning six weeks of Ash Wednesdays. Every Wednesday I will take to my knees and recite the litany of penitence that we are about to utter together. And, despite Matthew’s instruction against publicizing our practice, I might even sport a smudge of ashes on my forehead. Every week. Both as an outward and visible reminder to myself, and as a means of engaging others in this conversation about our shared dignity and mutual responsibility; a conversation that they will initiate when they inevitably alert me to the swatch of dirt on my face.
I know, I will say. It’s Ash Wednesday. The day when we remember that we, you and I, are both from dust and to dust we will return. We are equal in our ultimate worth. Now what can we do in between the dust that will matter for me as much as it will matter for you? How can we live into our shared dust?
I have been reading a lot of Dietrich Bonhoeffer these days. He wrote from his prison cell just before he was executed for opposing a state that disregarded the dignity of so many children of God – in his case, the Third Reich – Bonhoeffer wrote: “Jesus calls us not to a new religion, but to life.”
Ash Wednesday may be the only Christian Feast or Fast day that is not just for Christians. Ash Wednesday is not just a Christian observance, it is a human observance. It calls us not to religion, but to an alternative life; grounded in losing rather than winning, grounded in our willingness to give ourselves up, entirely, for love. I might just make Ash Wednesday a permanent part of my life and practice. What do you think?
I want to leave you with a wonderful poem written by the deeply-wisdom-burdened Jan Richardson. It’s from her blog The Painted Prayerbook. And it’s called Blessing the Dust.
All those days
you felt like dust,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.
So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
© March, 2017, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw