Last night was the “Ash Wednesday” service. This is the service we have each year that begins the season of Lent. At this service we sort of reenact a practice from the Bible of ripping off ones clothes and putting on the rattiest piece of clothing you can find, usually a piece of sackcloth and then sitting in a pile of ashes from something like a burning garbage fire. A pleasant experience for some I’m sure. We avoid some of the drama and confess our sins and I put the sign of the cross with very clean ashes on everyone’s foreheads.
Originally this was done at a time of significant grief and shame. It was a physical act meant to express an inward anguish about some communal disgrace. It was also a public act in which whoever is doing the sackcloth and ashes bit is recognizing that the only way out of this grief and shame is through a dependence on God’s Mercy, what we today know as Grace.
Last night after the service I was in the kitchen thanking whoever was cleaning up after the soup supper and they asked me what I thought of the turn out. I told them that I was judging that by how much my arm was hurting from going up to foreheads and back down into my jar full of ashes. By that measurer it was very good and did they have any Ibuprofen.
We usually have a very good turnout for the first soup supper and Ash Wednesday Service. I think the good turnout has something to do with the opportunity to try one another’s soups for the first time in about a year. There were so many good choices last night…..let me just say the cheddar bacon was just irresistible to me and it did not disappoint. By the way, we’ve got most of the soup suppers cared for except of course next Wednesday. If you or your ministry team would like to step up to help organize next week that would be great.
But it’s not just the great soup and fellowship hall full of people to hang out with that make for such a great turnout on Ash Wednesday. There is something about having a safe place to be honest with yourself, to come clean with yourself; with who you have been and how you have acted. A lot of us avoid a service with the climax being someone putting ashes on your forehead and saying, “from dust you have come and to dust you shall return,” in the middle of busy week. And yet when we recognize our limits, our inertia our shame they often begin to lose something of their power over us their hold upon us. The issue is how any of us hear that as word of grace. It can be difficult.
Last night we had a whole lot of kids in the service. They were great and I was glad to see most if not all of them come forward at the end of the service for the ashes. When the first kid came up and held her bangs back so that I could make a cross on her forehead I hesitated and instead of saying, “from dust you have come and to dust you shall return,” I said, “I want you to remember that there is nothing you can do to make God love you less.” The girl looked up a little surprised and with eyes that told me she was listening gave me a serious little nod. It was, for me, a glorious affirmation of faith and a confirmation of why we all need times like Ash Wednesday. I said the same thing to every kid who has not yet been confirmed. And it affected me profoundly. They know what I’m talking about.
“There is nothing you can do to make God Love you Less,” is I believe the message of the climax of this drama we call Lent. That end of course is not when you wash off the ashes on your forehead before going to bed, it’s not even Good Friday when we will read about a real cross with Jesus upon it. No, it’s Easter, the Resurrection, the new opportunity God provides that is the final word.
This is to be found in the words of the great theologian, Bono of U2 in his song entitled “Grace,”
What left the mark
no longer stings,
because grace makes beauty out of ugly things,
Grace finds beauty
Grace finds goodness
May you experience that Grace as you begin this season of Lent at EPUMC.