Ash Wednesday Service
February 17, 2010
“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:17-18)
"Our Lenten Journey"
Welcome aboard fellow travelers.
This is our departure point on our Lenten Journey.
Our tour will begin here on Ash Wednesday and along the way we’ll be making stops at Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and we will end our journey at daybreak on Easter Sunday. I suggest that you tighten your seat belts, secure any loose belongings and keep your hands inside the car at all times because it’s going to be a roller coaster of a ride.
We’ll begin here in the dimly lit entryway of Ash Wednesday where we’ll leave behind any unneeded baggage and receive a symbolic marking that will grant us access to all areas of the Lenten Journey.
I pray that you ate well before arriving here, as fasting is encouraged from this point onward.
As we move forward from Ash Wednesday we will gradually descend through the long, darkened tunnel of Lent. Here it will seem as if the walls are lined with mirrors - as we’ll be encouraged to look deeply at the images that we project to the world and examine how we might change the direction in which we’ve been moving - To move closer to love – love of self, love of neighbor, love of God - and further away from fear – fear of failure, fear of change, fear of our own mortality.
After 40 days and 40 nights of fasting and reflection we’ll gain altitude once again and ascend to the plateau of Palm Sunday. Here we will briefly emerge into the light of day and raise our hands in triumph at the arrival of Jesus, our beloved brother and guide, before dropping down once again into the darkened tunnel of Holy Week.
As we descend, we will quickly gather momentum until we hit bottom on Maundy Thursday. You are forewarned that on this day, water may splash over the sides of the car and your feet may get wet.
At this point on the journey we will share a meal together and remember the last night that Jesus spent on earth. As we exit Maundy Thursday the few remaining lights inside the Lenten tunnel will dim to black, and we will press on in silence.
As we move into Good Friday our tour will then slow to a crawl.
This section of the journey is not for the faint of heart.
The sights and the sounds that we’ll experience there are not pleasant but I encourage you to resist the urge to cover your eyes and plug your ears,
for we cannot truly experience the thrill and the joy of the height that is to come unless we first know what it is like to go through this valley.
The painful images, the cries of anguish, the metallic taste of fear in our mouths, and the smell of death will all converge and overwhelm our senses.
But then, just as abruptly as this torment began, it will end.
And the world will fall silent.
On Holy Saturday, our tour will come to a complete stop. We will sit in the darkened stillness of the tunnel. And we will wait.
We’ve been told that the exit lies just around the bend, but we can’t know for sure. At this point we will feel disoriented and lost.
It will seem as if our beloved guide has abandoned us, leaving us to find our own way home.
But as the sun rises on Easter morning we will see a thin shaft of light glowing in the distance, and we will begin to move forward once again.
Soon this pinpoint of light will grow to illuminate the walls and the floor and the ceiling around us.
As we exit the Lenten tunnel and emerge into the light of Easter morning, feel free to let loose with shouts of joy and to sing Halleluiah - as we feel the warmth of the sun on our skin and smell the sweet scent of freshly tilled earth all around us.
There we will get our first glimpse of new creation, new life, the resurrection of all that is good and holy.
It is there that Jesus, our beloved brother and guide, will step forward once again to greet us, to welcome us home after our long and tiring journey, and to offer us rest in the loving arms of God.
But we can’t get there, unless we begin here.
Here in the dimly lit entryway of Ash Wednesday.
It is here that we scrub our faces clean and anoint our heads with oil.
It is here that we offer alms and pray to God for forgiveness.
It is here that we begin our fast.
A fast that has little to do with depriving ourselves of what we want or desire, and very much to do with letting go of what we no longer need.
Our sins. Our sorrows. Our guilt. Our shame.
The pain and regret we feel for having wronged another.
The anger and resentment we feel against those who have wronged us.
The fear we feel when we contemplate our own mortality.
The emptiness we feel when we’ve distanced ourselves from God.
It is here on Ash Wednesday that we make a conscious effort to take all these things and lay them at our feet.
To spread them out on the ground so we can get a better look at them.
To say to our self, “These are the burdens that I’ve been carrying.
What is it that God wants me to carry?
And what is it that God wants me to leave behind?”
The point of receiving ashes is to remind us that eventually it will all be left behind.
Returning to the dust from which it was created.
Yesterday afternoon, as I watched the snow falling on the Andover Newton campus and sat mesmerized as the large yet delicate flakes drifted slowly to the ground - it was not hard to imagine that it was not snow that was falling, but ash.
As it blanketed the grass and weighed heavily on every branch of every tree, the world took on an eerie mono-chromatic silence.
The greens and the browns and the reds and the yellows, were obliterated under a layer of ashen white.
I was struck that on the eve of Ash Wednesday, nature had chosen to paint over what God had created, as if to prepare the canvas for something entirely new to appear.
Normally when I gaze out my window on campus and I see one of my classmates walking in the distance, with just a glance I can tell you who they are. Even if they’re too far away for me to see their face, I find familiar clues in their gait, their build, or even the color of their clothing.
Yesterday, their identities were a mystery to me. Bundled up in hats and heavy coats, moving quickly through the falling snow, each person looked just the same as the other.
It was as if nature was using the ashen snow to paint over us as well.
And why not.
We are part of creation.
We are not exempt from the cycle of life and death.
In Genesis, God said to Adam “You will return to the ground for out of it you were taken. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
From this we learn humility, for we die just as the leaves on the trees die, but we also learn that we are not above creation, but a part of it.
And God aches to be in relationship with creation,
God aches to be in relationship with us,
and we ache to be in relationship with God.
And all that stuff we’ve spread at our feet, all the stuff that we’ve been carrying around for years, this is what is getting in the way of our relationship with God.
So every year on Ash Wednesday, we come together in community and receive a smudge of ash across our foreheads.
To remind us that we’re not going to live forever, and the time to unburden ourselves and move into the loving embrace of God is now.
Now understandably, contemplating our own mortality and taking a good hard look at our shortcomings, is not something that we are eager to do. Which is why many of us choose to skip this stage of the Lenten journey.
In choosing to walk with Christ we’re often tempted to walk just part of the way. To skip joyfully by his side during the celebratory times and to run on ahead during the painful times.
Perhaps because spending 40 days in the wilderness picking at our scabs is too much for us to bear.
Perhaps because contemplating Jesus’ suffering reminds us too much of our own.
Perhaps because witnessing his death forces us to face the fact that we too will one day die.
But if our focus is only on the living Jesus, and the risen Jesus, are we missing the point of the incarnation? Are we neglecting to see that God so ached to be in relation with us that God became one of us - so we might know God better and God might know us better. And part of becoming one of us is to know what it is like to suffer and to die.
As we leave here and continue on our Lenten Journey I encourage you to see it through to the end.
To resist the inclination to fast forward to the high points, moving from Christmas to Palm Sunday to Easter Morning, touching only the mountain tops and avoiding the valleys below.
To take the time to visit Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
We know the resurrection is coming, but lets not be in such a hurry to get there.
Let’s walk along with Jesus as he trembles in the shadow of the cross.
Let’s spend some time in the wilderness pealing off the layers that prevent us from moving closer to God.
Let’s invite nature to take its ashen paint, and brush it across our forehead,
preparing a fresh canvas for God to create anew.