Posts Tagged ‘Ash Wednesday’

There once was a man who thought love was war
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before…

I think of this song every year around this time, though I usually hear it in my friend Jenni’s voice instead of Tom Russell’s. Jenni is part of the folk trio JamisonPriest, and I heard her sing it long ago, at a few of their gigs in Abilene.

There once was a woman, a pretty young thing
She sold her soul for a diamond ring…

I love contemporary songs that somehow feel old: Russell released this one in the early 2000s, but his rough-edged voice and the plainspoken lyrics make it seem like a world-weary folk classic. It is not, perhaps, traditional Ash Wednesday music, neither a somber hymn nor a choral setting of a religious text. But it comes back to lodge in my heart every year, when we remember that we are dust.

They’re all lovesick, they’re love tired
They stood a little close to the edge of the fire…

I did not make it to an Ash Wednesday service this year. But on my way to the train after work, I walked by the Old South Church, where two clergy were standing outside in the cold, offering ashes to willing passersby. One of them, a woman I know slightly from our mutual connections to Harvard, greeted me and then marked my forehead with ashes. “Remember that you are dust,” she said, “and to dust you shall return. But today, you have life as a child of God.” My eyes filled with tears.

They’ve got holes in their pockets, holes in their minds
They’re holy people in an unholy time…

Like most folk songs, and like faith, those words and this song tell a story or two and then leave you with a few words and images you can’t quite explain. I don’t understand Russell’s lyrics in the strictly logical sense, but they resonate with me at a deep level. And there’s a reason we refer to “the holy mysteries”: I can’t fully grasp the story I have lived with all my life, but it still draws me in.

Headin’ for the church at the end of the line
Ash Wednesday…

We are right where we always seem to be, when Lent begins: still in the middle of winter, snow-edged sidewalks and bold blue skies, bare branches and biting winds. The green spears of daffodils and crocuses are poking through the earth, but there’s danger of frostbite a while yet. It’s almost Easter, a friend joked the other day, and I said, Oh, no. We’ve barely begun.

We’re all lovesick, and love tired, as Russell has it, or (to quote my singer-songwriter friend Rachel) “proud and aching and sore.” But we are also – I will keep saying it all my life – wholly, deeply, unbelievably loved.


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blue sky branches

Ash Wednesday felt incongruous to me this year.

I’m sure it was partly the jet lag: I was only 36 hours out from a late-night arrival at Logan. I wasn’t quite back in step with the daily round, and I was so tired. And, as others have noted, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day this year, for the first time in decades. Talk about mixed messages.

I walked across the Yard to Memorial Church for Morning Prayers, where Florence Ladd gave a graceful talk that invoked the film Chocolat (which fit perfectly with the day’s conflicting identities). I came back on my lunch break for the brief Ash Wednesday service: readings from the prophet Joel, a quiet Lenten hymn, Alanna marking my forehead with ash, repeating the traditional words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The sun had come out after a grey morning, and I paused on the steps after service and looked up into the suddenly blue sky. It, too, felt at odds with the day’s somber message, though I welcome the sunshine any day, especially in the winter.

Walking back to work, I wondered how to reconcile the messages of these two coinciding days. Remember that you are dust; that everything is temporary; that grief and sorrow are a fundamental part of this human life. And also: remember, even after the chocolate has melted and the chalky candy hearts have all been eaten, that you are loved.

That afternoon, I walked down to Darwin’s for a cup of tea. “Ash Wednesday?” asked the barista, nodding toward the smeared cross on my forehead. I nodded, and then complimented her red sweater and vintage pink earrings. We talked a bit about the odd confluence of dates, and she said, “It’s all a form of love, isn’t it?”

I thought, then, of a line I’d read several days before, in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s fifth mystery featuring Russ Van Alstyne and the Reverend Clare Fergusson. During a scene set in Clare’s kitchen, where Russ is wrestling with guilt and doubting that he deserves forgiveness, Clare tells him, “We none of us get what we deserve, thank God. We get what we’re given. Love. Compassion. A second chance. And then a third, and a fourth.”

We none of us get what we deserve. We get what we’re given. Those words have stayed in my head for days now, and when Lauren mused that it’s all a form of love, I thought: Yes. This.

The ashes; the sobering reminder of our own mortality; the blue sky arching high above; the love that comes to us unbidden from family members, friends, acquaintances, partners. We don’t earn any of it; we simply receive what we’re given. Call it grace; call it forgiveness; call it blessing. In the end, all I can say is thank you.

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crocuses snow diptych

I flipped the kitchen calendar to April this weekend, as a mix of snow and sleet swirled down outside the windows. This wasn’t quite the April Fool’s blizzard of 20 years ago, but it was still a proper nor’easter: more like February than April. Both Nature’s clock and my internal one seem to be off this year.

It’s been a month since Ash Wednesday, a month that has swung wildly between sunny days that coaxed the crocuses to lift up their faces to the blue sky, and freezing, bitter winds accompanied by snow, sleet and rain. I suppose we were all fooled by the mild days in late February. (I know I was.)

Lent is typically a hard season for me: I do not naturally dwell in darkness, and Lent asks us to look steadily at our human frailties, the flaws inherent in our nature that trip us up again and again. We begin, on Ash Wednesday, with the words that say it all in one sentence: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This year on Ash Wednesday, I sat with a handful of other Harvard folks in the boxy white pews of Memorial Church, listening to the prayers and readings, reciting the litany of confession. But I was thinking about two things, not (at first glance) related: a poem I’d heard that morning at the daily prayer service, and Lord Voldemort.

The poem, by Jan Richardson, is called “Blessing the Dust,” and Alanna read it aloud in her clear, ringing voice:

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.

At many churches, the dried palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service are burned to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. The ashes are what is left after a fire: the scorched remains of what was once fresh and green. They mark us, smeared onto our foreheads by the finger of a minister or a loved one, along with those words I can’t forget: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Earlier this winter, I reread the Harry Potter series, again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve turned back to this story, diving joyfully into the world of Hogwarts and relishing Harry’s adventures with Ron and Hermione. I read them, this time around, with a friend who loves them as much as I do, which was the most fun I’ve had reading anything in a very long time.

On Ash Wednesday, my thoughts turned back to Voldemort, and how the insistent reminder of Lent – that we are dust – is the very thing he worked so hard, all his life, to deny.

Voldemort – when he was still Tom Riddle, young and friendless – always yearned to believe he was special, set apart, somehow above the rules and limits placed on other people. When he learned about his magical ability, he began searching for a way to make himself immortal, which led him down a dark and dangerous path. He always had a deep and unusual fear of death, and this obsession led him to experiment with Horcruxes: splitting his soul into multiple pieces, killing again and again, trying any means he could find to achieve a semblance of immortality. His followers – never friends – were called Death Eaters; his quest to find Harry, and kill him, was born out of the terror of his own mortality. Voldemort never believed Dumbledore’s assertion that the limits of our humanity can also be a gift.

Magic in the Harry Potter universe (which bears some resemblance to faith in our own world) provides no guarantee of immortality. Many witches and wizards live long lives, but some of them – like Dumbledore, Harry’s parents and eventually Harry himself – end up placing their lives at risk, even giving them up, to defend those they love.

The walk Harry takes into the Forbidden Forest near the end of Deathly Hallows echoes Jesus’ journey to Calvary: the action of a man, gifted but mortal after all, intent on giving up his life for the sake of others. Voldemort, by contrast, hid behind his own twisted experiments and machinations until the very end. He never would have understood the words of Richardson’s poem: he would not have believed in “the blessing / that lives within / the ancient ashes.”

We are two weeks away from Easter: from the day when we emerge, blinking, into the brightness of the Garden on a Sunday morning, into the joy that has been winking at us, calling to us from around the corner. I love the Holy Week narrative and I know we need it all: the deep, utterly despairing dive into darkness, the mournful songs of Maundy Thursday and the howling grief of Good Friday. I know we need the suspension of Holy Saturday: the world holds its breath, waiting to see if the promise will be fulfilled.

I am ready for the joy of Easter Sunday: the blaze of light, the birdsong, the proclamation of the sentence carved on James and Lily Potter’s grave: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” But we are not quite there yet, and even when we get there, some of the old sorrow will still linger. The glory of Easter doesn’t negate the wounds of our humanity. It heals them, but it does not make them disappear.

So as I walk (carefully) down sidewalks still edged with melting snow, I am holding Richardson’s words close. I am thinking about our humanity, about the frail, soft, vulnerable parts of ourselves that Voldemort feared, but which give us (among other gifts) our ability to love. I am hopeful, as Richardson is, that I will see

what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

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memorial church interior

Nearly two weeks ago, I walked across campus through the snow to the Ash Wednesday service at Memorial Church. It was brief: a couple of readings, the litany of repentance, and a slow procession up to the front to have our foreheads smeared with ash.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the minister said as he made the sign of the cross on my head. Then, softly, he added, “Glory be to God.”

We ended with a hymn I’d never heard before: “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days.” The title of this post comes from the end of the first verse: “Teach us with thee to mourn our sins, and close by thee to stay.”

I didn’t grow up observing Lent, but I’ve experimented with it on and off over the past decade, giving up chocolate or candy, or making an effort to add something in, like a reading or a practice of prayer. I decided this year, after eight feet of snow in three weeks, that giving anything (else) up would make me crazy. Getting through this winter, and reaching Easter, will be sacrifice and reward enough.

Since Ash Wednesday, that hymn has been playing in the back of my mind, its melody keeping me company, as the Magnificat did in December. Two lines have particularly struck me: the one quoted above, and this one at the end of the fourth verse: “Yea, evermore in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.”

Some years, for me, Lent has been about sacrifice: giving something up to see if I could, or because my church community was trying out this ancient but new-to-us practice. Some years, it has been about denial: wanting to skip over the whole dark season and rush forward to Easter and spring.

This year, I keep thinking about those two lines, and I have realized: this Lent, for me, is about abiding.

Lindsey noted last summer on her blog that marriage is about abiding, about remaining near. Several months later, she added that friendship is made of attention. I agree in both cases, and sometimes I also think this is the entire point of the spiritual life: to keep drawing near to God, to pay attention, to keep asking God to abide with us in our messy, walking-around lives.

My favorite hymns these days are the quiet ones, the ones that sidle up to God and ask him to draw near, because this world is dark and complicated and heavy and we can’t move through it on our own. There is a place for the unbridled joy of the praise songs I loved as a college student, but the phrases I keep returning to now are softer, gentler: Abide with me. Come, thou fount of every blessing. Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.

I still find Lent difficult: it is hard for me to look steadily at the darkness of this world, at least without flinching or wanting to run away. I’m already longing for Passion Week, where the darkness grows even darker for a while before the glory of Easter breaks in. I am ready to be there already, to step into the story of Jesus when I know the daylight is around the corner, when the pain and suffering will be worth it because they will finally make sense.

But we’re not there yet. We are here, in the middle of Lent, and the middle of winter (at least here in New England). We have four more weeks to Palm Sunday, five weeks until Easter, who knows how long until spring.

We are here. And it is our job to remain here, to live in this in-between place, and to keep praying the words of the hymn I’m growing to love: Yea, evermore, in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.

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On Ash Wednesday

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

A sobering thought, especially on a sunny, bright blue, spring-warm Ash Wednesday. Nothing somber at all about the weather. But the noon service at the Church of the Heavenly Rest here in town was quiet and moving. I love that little nave, with its cool marble columns and gorgeous stained-glass windows, and its old, peaceful soul. Other than the accents, I may as well have been in England.

It’s been quite windy this week in Abilene, and I’ve sat out on my deck the last few evenings and let the wind whip over me. It’s felt like a cleansing agent, sweeping through me, emptying me of all the junk that builds up inside. I’ve asked God to let it leave me pure, like a clean white shell found on a beach, emptied and smoothed by the waves and sand. Such shells reflect light in a beautiful way, and they can be filled with good things. I want to be emptied of junk so I can both reflect and be filled up with Him…whatever that means, whatever it looks like.

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open,
All desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden,
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit –
That we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy Name.
Through Christ our Lord,

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Ash Wednesday

Yesterday was the third time I’ve ever participated in an Ash Wednesday service. Coming from a non-liturgical background, I grew up with limited knowledge about the church year, gleaned mostly from books. I had a few friends who were Catholic or Episcopalian, but – let’s face it – most high school kids don’t take that stuff too seriously. Or they’re ashamed to talk about it if they do.

Two years ago, I joined three fellow students and a small crowd of older people at St. Giles’ Church in Oxford on Ash Wednesday. Last year, my roommates and I bundled up against the cold and went to an early morning service at Church of the Heavenly Rest here in Abilene. But yesterday I didn’t even have to leave campus. Our music department chair, Greg Straughn, decided to turn that day’s departmental chapel into an Ash Wednesday observance.

We had a few songs and two Scripture readings and read a prayer together. We stumbled our way through a short chantlike song, and then they dimmed the lights. Dr. Straughn told us we were free to go, or we could stay and pray for a few minutes, alone or with faculty members. He had a small jar of ashes, available for anyone who wanted to observe the Ash Wednesday tradition of being marked by a cross of ashes on the forehead or palm.

I wasn’t planning on going up there. I’ve felt so far from God lately that I sometimes feel as if I’m shouting across a canyon when I pray. What good would it do me to be marked by ashes? It wouldn’t change anything. A dark smear on my forehead wasn’t going to bring me back to Him.

But after sitting for a few minutes, watching as people bowed their foreheads slightly to receive the ashes, I got out of my seat and joined the line. And it was a quiet but powerful experience to have someone I know (Dr. Straughn is a professor and friend of mine) mark my forehead with ashes and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I wrote a poem about it later that day. It’s still a work in progress, but perhaps it reaches into that experience more than my stumbling prose can do.

Ash Wednesday

Today this cross marks me as a follower
of Jesus,
a spirit housed in a body
made of ashes like these.
The edges are blurred,
smeared a little, like my soul –
broken, insufficient,
unsure, but still His,
walking down the road He walked
toward the light.

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