Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near - a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like shadow spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come… Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning…
Ash Wednesday Lectionary, Year C
Joel 2:1-2, 12
It is the morning after Ash Wednesday. I wake exhausted and broken-hearted, ash-grit still marking my forehead; some stray bits smudged during sleep form a darkened edge just below my left eye. I look as if I slept in ashes, which I have. This new and terrible war has spilled into my sleeping hours for days now. I cannot eat. I weep. I am grief-stricken.
Jesus meets me in the ashes.
Even now. Even now.
I was given the gift of Lent when I was an unchurched seminarian in a congregation located in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City. When I was serving in my first pastoral role there several years later, it was in the Ash Wednesday “liturgy of the ashes” that Jesus sought and found me, exhausted and broken-hearted, in the terrible wake of September 11th, 2001.
Jesus met me in the ashes.
Even then. Even then.
And while the reality at the core of my life is that Jesus has sought and found me over and over again, it is also a truth of my journey that I struggle to stay. I wander. I run. I stray.
It is not that I lose belief in God, it is not that I lose faith in Jesus. It is that I lose my way: I lose sleep, I lose track of time, I lose my mind. I lose heart, I lose the thread, the words to the prayers, the way back home again. In the words of the first “old hymn” that ever spoke to me - a very old and traditional Christian hymn which to this day cannot fail to bring this still hesitant religionist to tears - I am “prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.”
It is not lack of love, but rather my fragile capacity for bearing great love in this broken world, for this broken world, that sends me wandering, running, straying into the land of despair, grief-stricken with dimming hope. It is that I stumble on the path of return, stumble as I discover I must turn again and again and again toward God with my shattered heart, toward Jesus with my ashen face. It i the only way, every time. Even now.
The small wooden bowl of ashes rests in the palm of my left hand as I make my way through the gathering of residents in the startlingly lovely chapel of this senior community. The large stained glass imaging of Jesus at prayer outside at night, soldiers approaching in the distance, sleeping disciples to the side, is brilliant with unexpected late-afternoon sun. Meditative instrumentals play softly, sweetly interspersed with unbound words from a resident whose dementia gathers her words only to shower them like confetti or rose petals, a happy littering of tumbled blessing and praise. Though her phrases fall like beads from a necklace suddenly unstrung, her worship is utterly coherent; it’s as if she has become so fluent in God’s language that the grammar of an earthly tongue no longer suffices.
Silent a moment, she turns her face upward to receive the mark of the cross. Closing her eyes, she raises her hands in alleluia, smiles as I brush a curl of grey from her forehead: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In God’s image you are made, and by God’s grace you are restored.”
A few crumbly bits of ash fall lightly into her lashes; her eyes flash open. “Oh in my Jesus you beautiful are!” For this moment I am washed in the holy wonder of repentance; within the space of a breath, I am returned. I see her. She sees me. I see Him. He sees me. “Jesus sought me while a stranger, wandering from the fold of God…” He to rescue me from danger interposed His unbound love.
He is returning us Home through the ashes.