Choosing not to see it as a weird hallucination, I decided to ask what those smudges were about. Irene, a none-too-observant Catholic, gave me the formal answer, "Ash Wednesday is the day that kicks off Lent, a run up to Easter for Catholics." "Okay," I said, "but why the smudges on your foreheads?" She gave a real good answer that has stuck with me ever since: "The ashes remind us that we are human, our time is limited and our choices matter."
As Lent begins, we are asked to take a hard look at the choices we make. The days before the First Sunday in Lent set the stage for a divine encounter. It is a time of honesty and surrender.
Am I going to live determined by my mistakes, losses and sorrows or am I going to receive God's offer of New Creation? This is what the Lenten journey to Easter asks of us. We start with a hard look at the past on Ash Wednesday. We are most entangled in the old way of things by memories of failure, weakness and disastrous behaviours and attitudes. They are memorex tapes that keep us repeating the same patterns and lock us into negative and shameful thoughts.
Tonight we are going to stare down a tape or two, record over them with the merciful song of grace and gain new desires from their ashes. The ashes are here to remind us of how easy it is to slip away from a life in the Spirit. As Irene told me, they remind us of our humanity. The most difficult memories to recall involve our fondest hopes gone wrong. Even more difficult to face is the fact that we sabotaged what we most longed for through misdirected desires.
The memories you will be asked to offer up are yours alone. You don't have to share them publicly. You can be excruciatingly honest. Just let the Spirit draw the memory, jot down a word or two that describes it and place it in the ashes.
As an example, I want to share with you an entangling memory that keeps my own patterns alive. I have many that I hope to work through this Lent but I have been guided to reflect on my reforming perfectionism. The area it has distorted involves my desire for a renewed community or ecclesia.
When I was twenty, back in the 70's, my heart was snagged by the vision of a renewed church. A church that could approximate the ideals set forth in the Bible: full member participation, mutual use of spiritual gifts, group guidance, and empowered service to the world. My imagination fed on these ideals. The project was like having a new relationship where I could see only the good side, the exciting side, the energizing side. I was in love with my ideals.
The crush lasted twenty years or so. It took that long before my love for reforming perfection was crucially wounded. By striving to have this good goal accomplished I burned myself out. I was perpetually disappointed with myself and those around me. I became judgmental and lost my love for the actual community in my pursuit of the ideal. I championed my views of community and created divisions between those who could live this vision out and those who couldn't. I attended the strong and the striving but left behind struggling ones. I made enemies. I guess you can see where this is going - I became a significant part of the problem. I even developed addictions of coping with the anxiety of conflict: drinking, smoking and letting off steam through anger and swearing. All of this because I tried to reform from idealism and zeal, not love and the Spirit. I needed to fail.God knew that and helped me along.
The reason I offer this pattern of failure to God this Lent is because I have seen God working in a new way in our community and want to build the body in God's way through the fruit of his Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. The goal of participating in community wasn't wrong. In fact, from these ashes of a curbed conscience a new desire has taken hold of me. Irene was right. Choices matter - choices made in the Spirit empowered by God's grace.
We burn our regretful or sad memories, realizing that it is part of who we have been in our flesh, in our weak self-centered selves. Using the ashes of this old self we will mark one another with the sign of Christ recognizing that God promises us a re-created life as we move towards Easter. Receiving this sign we are choosing the New Creation over against the old as our genuine identity.
I have been thinking about what may happen as we make this choice for the New. Perhaps we are not just repenting of our old mistaken patterns but replacing them? Part of the reconciliation of Christ according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a restoration of the old - that is, God taking our failures and making them new in the victory of the cross. It is as if God is giving our history a second chance to be what it was intended to be. The past may have been spoiled and missed opportunities lost but as we receive new life, these events come back to life as God had originally intended them to be.
Here is how Bonhoeffer expressed this hope. In a letter written from prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote at Christmas, 1941:
Nothing that is past is lost… God gathers up again with us our past, which belongs to us… Everything is taken up in Christ… Christ restores all this as God originally intended it to be.
Jurgen Moltmann, a former German soldier who met Christ in a prisoner of war camp, shares his hope of recreation:
I shall come back again to my life, and in the light of God's grace and in the power of his mercy put right what has gone awry, finish what was begun, pick up what has been neglected, forgive the trespasses, heal the hurts, and be permitted to gather up the moments of happiness and to transform mourning into joy.
… it is being given the chance to become the persons God meant us to be. If everyone is a unique idea on God's part, as we like to say, then God will think it important for this idea to find its own proper realization, and its successful and completed form. ('The Coming of God')
Each Lent, you are given a new opportunity to make a change in yourself. Rather than create your version of this Lent, perhaps you can allow God to take the lead.
You are sitting on the edge of a new way of seeing yourself — that is, to see yourself as God sees you. During these first days of Lent, you can choose to seek a radical and vulnerable way of coming to meet God in the desert.