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A Reflection on Ash Wednesday

At a recent retreat with the Diocesan Council of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, Bishop Doug Fisher told a story of a group of refugees fleeing their familial village. They were just one step ahead of the Nazis who sought to either imprison them or end their lives. For days they had walked day and night trying to escape. Finally, the old man just sat down. He said, “I can’t go any farther. You go on and save yourselves.” His family and friends pleaded with him to get up and try to go just a little farther. But he refused. He said “I will only make you go slower and I am just too tired.” Without a word, a young woman placed a baby in his lap and walked away. He looked at the child and the mother and began yelling, “Come get your child!” Come, if you leave this baby it will surely die!” “Don’t leave this baby!” But the woman did not even look back. She just continued walking away. So the old man got up and carried the child to safety. The man saved the child. But the child saved the man.

Today on this Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of our Lenten journey, we will receive a cross-shaped smudge on our forehead. The ashen sign helps us remember who we are and from where we come. We are of the earth, created by a loving God who breathed life into our bodies so we may be a symbol of life and love in the world. It is also a sign that reminds us that we are mortal. That the moments of this life are finite and that someday we all will return to the earth from which we came.  And so, we are to pay attention, to spend our moments wisely, to practice being alive in the present, so as not to miss the awe or fail to be grateful for, as the poet Mary Oliver says “this one wild and precious life” that we have received as blessing.

The cross of ashes also reminds us of how we are connected with each other. Every living being is part of God’s creation. Each of us unique and special, contributing our own richness into the world, offering what only we can offer as a part of this beautiful tapestry of life.

And we are alike. We all need hearts that beat to send our blood coursing through our bodies, we all need minds that allow us to move our bodies, that learn and ask questions, looking at the world each day with new curiosity. We all need clean air for our lungs and nutritious food and safe water to make our bodies go. We need to be touched to live. We desire to be secure and loved and free. And we have a profound hope that all we love will be able to live in a world at peace. Each of us are mortal. All of us will someday return to the earth.

As we begin our time of Lent we remember that this beautiful season is given to us as a gift to remind us that life is a series of rhythms. The ancient Church in its wisdom decreed that the Christian year, too, would have its rhythms: times of joy and celebration, of discipline and penitence; time to be outrageously happy and time to be appropriately sad. Time for consumption and times for abstinence. For everything there is a season.

The ashes we will receive in a moment also remind us that life is much too important to travel it alone. God walks with us every step of the way. And we know that we need earthly partners and companions to be with us as we journey through the ups and downs, the highs the lows, the moments of outrageous joy and the moments of wounding sorrow. The ashes remind us that we are all connected and that we all need each other.

In this time of Lent, we often ask a series of questions. How should I walk through this season? What should I give up or take on? These are good questions, but Jesus invites us into something deeper. He asks us what we treasure. Jesus gets to the heart of the matter. Jesus knows that how we spend our moments is how we spend our lives.

How do you plan to use this precious gift of time in Lent this year?

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus talks about disciplines that should be practiced—not for congratulation or trumpets to be blown—but because giving of ourselves, taking time to rest with God in silence, emptying our lives of things that clutter rather than lead to wholeness—are good and important for our ability to connect with God and connect with ourselves.

Following the Revival with Michael Curry last fall, we have continued praying and living the Way of Loveto which our Presiding Bishop invited us. Our Berkshire churches inspired by this message developed for Lent 40 Days of Love and Kindness. These simple practices are not strenuous nor time consuming. But allow us to focus on connecting with God, ourselves, and our neighbors—our treasures. They are simple practices that allow us to give what we can and in doing so offer God’s love into the world.

Simple acts done once a week like sending a note to someone, praying for someone in need, giving a complement to a stranger, inviting someone who needs company to dinner, can have impacts far beyond our initial action. And the glory of giving is that the giver receives so much more. We may be the only bright spot in someone’s life that week. And they may be the brightest spot in ours. Often in saving another’s life, we save our own. We need each other.

Every year we are given this great gift—a time of “spiritual stocktaking” as Evelyn Underhill says—a time to take a retreat from “life’s busy surfaces to its solemn deeps.” Not all of us can go away to a mountain or a monastery. But each of us are invited in this time of Lent to think about what really matters. To ask ourselves the question Jesus poses—what do you treasure? Do that!

This time of Lent is just the beginning.  We start today and know that the work of giving and loving and praying and fasting allows us to take one more step toward becoming a full part of all the beauty and all the need and all the hope that is present in this world, doing what we have been given to do to restore all things and everyone to God’s goodness and God’s wish for all of us. We do this by setting aside time to be alive in the present moment, to spend moments with who and what we treasure, to connect with God, ourselves, and our neighbor.

Thanks be to God we are loved and treasured by our God. As we enter these 40 days may we walk with, lean on, and rest in the One who created us, gives us life, and calls us to love all our days.

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