If you could go back in time, say, to your teens or your twenties and, knowing everything you do today, live within your person at that time, and experience what you experienced, would you do it? At first, your answer might be, “Of course!” You might be reminiscing about those halcyon high school days or those late nights and good friends in college. But do you also remember the awkwardness and confusion? The sense of wanting to move on in life but also the really dumb decisions you made?
You might still do it. You might not. Whatever your answer, this should be a hard question.
In some ways, that’s what we’re doing today. We’re not just lamenting our own sins and wretchedness. In fact, we make a great mistake if we think that Ash Wednesday is just about our sins and sinfulness. In part, many of us are already over on the other side; many of us know for what we are preparing and for whom and why. The season Ash Wednesday inaugurates, Lent, is an intentional, forty-day preparation for the only joy that can worthily be called by that name – resurrection, new life, Easter. We are already Easter people, already there, already set free. And we know it.
So why go back? Why on Ash Wednesday, do we deal with our sins and our brokenness, that which we have failed to do and that which we have left undone?
We go back because this world needs us to. Well, not so much us, but this world needs whose we are. Having been gathered as this unique and counter-cultural society called “the church,” having died to our old lives and brought into a new life in Christ, we are no longer who we once were, although that self hasn’t gone away; we live no longer only to ourselves but, now, we live to God. Now, we are his body in this world, the very Body of Christ. The 16th century Spanish Carmelite, Teresa of Avila, said it best: “Christ has no body but yours: no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”
That’s precisely how and why we can go back. We know we are already redeemed, already loved, already “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever,” as we do so profoundly in the service of Holy Baptism. Knowing that, we can go back. Those sins and that wretchedness you confess today is what you have done or have failed to do, and it’s who you are apart from Christ. But that is not who you are, at the deepest level of your being. That’s not who you are in Christ. You know, and know at your core, what Paul said in his letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13)
The reason so many don’t go backward, don’t revisit their past and deal with their shortcomings is because they’re afraid they’ll get stuck there. I don’t think it’s inconsequential that T. S. Eliot began his collection of poems, “Ash Wednesday,” with the following stanzas:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn …
Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know that I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again
Many are afraid to go deep because, like Eliot wrote, they “do not hope to turn again.” But not us. This, then, is the mystery of Ash Wednesday. This is not a day in which we dance around our sins, naming them lightly or in a quick rush while we’re off to our next step on our day. We don’t brush over our past unfaithfulness or what or whom we’ve ignored, quickly adding pardon and hope and a promise of something better. No, this is a day when we dig and dig deeply into our own struggles and suffering and pain.
We do this because we know we won’t get stuck there. We do this because we know we are not stuck there. We do this because, yes, because we are already Easter people.
In fact, doing it the other way around is confusing and, frankly, a bit dangerous theologically, spiritually. When we turn this day, as many have, into a day to be present at train stations or commuter bus stops or wherever the marketplace is – dispensing Ashes-to-Go – the tendency is to cut short this soul searching, to add a note of blessing and renewal to these ashes, these signs of unmistakable death. Just look at what the Book of Common Prayer has already done; specifically, the (optional) prayer over the ashes on page 265:
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
This is liturgical theologian, Howard Galley’s, very 20th century revision of a much earlier, medieval prayer from the Sarum rite. The original prayer is much heavier, much darker, much more concentrated on our sins and, for my taste, much more honest. You can see the similarities and the very real differences between the two prayers in the original, here:
God, you desire not the death but the repentance of sinners: Look kindly upon the fragility of our human condition, and of your mercy deign to bless these ashes which we have resolved to put upon our heads as a token of humility and for the obtaining of pardon, that we, whom you have admonished are but ashes and know that for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust, consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.
Galley’s revision speaks of “our mortality and penitence,” but leaves out the reminder that these ashes are “token[s] of our humility and for the obtaining of pardon.” Galley’s prayer skips over Sarum’s most cutting line, “for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust,” and entirely replaces the result of the prayer: today, the result is grace (“…that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life”); in the original, it is hope (“…consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.”)
We make this turn, this Ash Wednesday turn inward to deal straightforwardly with our sins and sinfulness, not because we know the why and wherefore of grace – that’s the greatest mystery of all; in fact, if we think too long about grace we’ll realize we don’t deserve it. No, we make this turn because we are a people of hope. We have walked through the fallen-ness of our lives and, we suspect, we will from time to time still fall short of the glory of God, but we also know we are already redeemed, already set free, already capable of so much transformative power – not because of our sins but in spite of them, and only because God in Christ loved us first. That’s why we can go back, not because we want to nor because there is good back there, but because we can, in Him.