Yesterday, thousands of Christians gathered to usher Lent in with a Holy Day: Ash Wednesday. Some of my colleagues did “Ashes to Go.” (I had done that the past two years, but took a break this year.) All over the internet, there were offers of daily Lenten meditations that one could subscribe to. Many of us offered the liturgy of Ash Wednesday–which includes an invitation to a holy Lent, the imposition of ashes, the reading together of Psalm 51 (one of the most penitential psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures), a Litany of Penitence, an absolution, and then Holy Communion.
As I wound down last night, I was reflecting on the day. For me, it was a very full one. It had included meetings about Christian formation of our youth and children with our Director of Family & Youth Ministry, a tutorial on electronic media, a meeting with our organist/choir director about Lenten worship, a couple of pastoral phone calls, lots of e-mails, an unexpected connection with a first cousin whom I have never met (we are doing some family genealogy), and the two services.
What was a common thread in all of these encounters? Words. I exchanged lots of words with people, in several milieus. Yet what I was most struck with–and not for the first time–was the power of the words in our liturgy.
I grew up in a Southern Baptist preacher’s home. I was familiar with people who did extemporaneous prayers. No one used a book. The Book was the Bible. So by the time I was twelve years old, I could (and did) pray in public with no problem.
Yet I left that Baptist tradition. As a college student, and the young adult, I fell deeply in love with the music, the liturgies, the powerful words in the Book of Common Prayer. That poetry of the Prayerbook drew me in. The symbols of Eucharist–bread and wine–drew me in. It was not that there was less power in the words we prayed out of a Prayerbook. There was MORE power, for me.
So yesterday, I began both services with words written hundreds of years ago, in a long line of tradition: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. . .” God hates nothing that God has made. Just think about the incredible depth and power of those words. If you claim those words, you will not ever hate yourself again. God does not hate anything God makes–that means you. That means me.
Yes, later in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I prayed a prayer that acknowledges our humble beginnings: “Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.”
And then, I slowly moved down the altar rail. One by one, people, knelt–young, old, male, female, black, white. I traced the sign of the cross on their foreheads and said, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” At both services, I knelt and asked a parishioner to etch those ashes on my own forehead. I do not want to forget. I do not want to forget that I came from the earth, and I will return someday to the earth. I do not want to forget that God created me. God loves me. God has never hated me, and never will. God is sitting in the old wing chair with a hot cup of tea, waiting for me to come and be held and loved. In this ultimate Word, I fall silent, and just know Love.
May that Word hold you this day.
Pictures taken by McJilton