A Smudge of Ashes

It has been intriguing to me over the years of ministry both the desire and the attraction this day known as Ash Wednesday has for people both connected to and disconnected from organized communities of faith. It seems there is something about having a cross of ash smudged on our foreheads or the backs of our hands that openly invites and helps us recognize our truest selves. Much of the time we are our vocations or our gender or gender identities or our age or our ethnicity or whatever other labels we seem to fill in the eyes of the world and sometimes our own. But this day . . . this peculiar smudge of ashes on the forehead day, draws us as human beings to our deepest selves. And seemingly for one day we are less afraid to admit our mortality, our weaknesses, our essence of self that is courageous and fearful, filled with truth and sometimes not, compassionately caring and all too self-centered, deeply joyful and profoundly sad; and all of this wrapped up in us at the same time and even in the same moment. In this day we seem to passionately desire the ability to admit our complexity, the leveled out playing field of acknowledging we are sometimes too weak to face the hard stuff, and therefore more ready to receive the promise of our truth. A truth which is amazingly not too much truth for God to bear. Maybe we let grace closer to our hearts today than any other day of the year, and we do it together and globally and with a nod of understanding that we are more the same than different.

For some of us it will start a day of decision to refrain from something and/or to add something. I believe these practices are less about our own strength of will and more about our willingness to accept our humanness and to recognize that Jesus walks this way with us and invites us to connect and walk this way with one another. I’ve been seeing this possibility of fasting being posted on FB from Pope Francis and it’s hitting my heart this year:

Do You Want to Fast This Lent?

In the words of Pope Francis

  • Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
  • Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
  • Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
  • Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
  • Fast from worries and have trust in God.
  • Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
  • Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
  • Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy.
  • Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
  • Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
  • Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

Can we do all of this all of the time? Absolutely not. If this becomes one more way of self-condemnation then we miss the spirit of what fasting is meant to be. What if fasting is the blessing of accepting it’s not about our own sense of self-control, and is about God’s power of loving us into a better world for self and one another? If any kind of fasting becomes a set of rules, I guarantee it will not work in the spirit I believe it is intended. If it becomes, perhaps no less than Jesus words in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12) a humble way of being, a spirit of heart and soul that seeks to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, I believe it frees us from a life of condemnation and judgment, first of ourselves, and then by definition, of others.

I think why people are drawn to this day of ashes, is a desire to be true to self without masks, or pretense, or the “trappings” of what the world tells us makes us significant. Somehow admitting to ourselves and to the world with a smudge of ash on our forehead that we aren’t always “all that and a bag of chips” frees us to know a love from God that moves deeper than our own ability to grant ourselves all that we need to feel whole, forgiven, and loved. It is, in fact, a day filled with God’s grace, as is every day, but somehow admitting our mortality and humanness out loud, empowers us to receive that “always grace” in a deeper and perhaps more starkly real way.

Frederick Buechner says it this way:

“The danger of our guilt, both personal and collective, is less that we won’t

take it to heart than we’ll take it to heart overmuch and let it fester there in

ways that we ourselves often fail to recognize . . . it is about as hard to absolve

yourself of your own guilt as it is to sit in your own lap. Wrongdoing sparks

guilt sparks wrongdoing ad nauseam, and we all try to disguise the grim process

from both ourselves and everybody else. In order to break the circuit, we

need somebody before whom we can put aside the disguise, trusting that

when they see us for what we fully are, they won’t run away screaming.

In God’s presence the fact of our guilt no longer makes us feel and act out our

guiltiness. For a moment at least the vicious circle stops circling and we can

step down onto the firm ground of acceptance, where maybe we’ll be able to

walk whole again.”

Welcome to a journey that begins, both literally and/or spiritually, with a smudge of ashes in the sign of the cross, claiming each of us in Jesus’ redeeming and limitless grace. Not a grace that sees us on the outside, but a grace that sees us from the inside out, and loves without condition of our pretense of perfection. May today be both an acknowledgment and relief from self-imposed burdens of on-going guilt from which God has already forgiven us. And may it be the start of receiving a fullness through a releasing of self and other condemnation and a multiplying of God’s call to be-loved and to love others as we both compassionately and humbly love ourselves.

And may the Prayer of St. Francis as sung on the video, be our prayer most especially, in this Lenten season.