ashes. noun. “The remains of something destroyed.”
We arrive at church on Wednesday at 7. We are shockingly on time. Our rustling echoes in the stark sanctuary, where crosses are covered.
Ash Wednesday is new to me. So is this form of church, with its thees and thous and ringing bells and kneeling at times I can’t yet anticipate. I feel shifty under the weight of its liturgy, shiftier still when we get in line for the imposition of the ashes. The priest intones, over and over, “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shall return.” His thumb is smudged black.
I walk back to my seat, forehead smeared, uncomfortable. It’s not often I contemplate my own mortality. It’s not often that I ponder how my sin has separated me from my God.
Adam flips through the missal to the confession, and I realize how, now that I’m saved, sin seems a minor inconvenience. Yep, we mess up. We apologize, to God or neighbors or ourselves. We face the consequences. But mostly, we’re doing just fine. Sin is a hangnail, ignorable. It is no great welt across the soul.
We confess, and I hesitantly pray that God would show me the gravity of my sin. It is a halfhearted prayer, like the ones I often whisper that God would show me his presence and want to then take back. The hardest days are often the ones where I see his presence most. I don’t know what this request will bring me.
I forget this prayer. But two days later, I see it answered.
I am waiting outside Adam’s apartment after school. He calls. Our plans have suddenly changed. He needs sympathy, kindness, love. Instead, I am irritated at minor inconveniences. I rarely deal gracefully with changed plans. Often, I can brush off this tendency as a character quirk. This evening, it manifests itself as selfishness. I am nasty.
I see my error, almost as soon as I hang up the phone, and with increasing clarity as the evening goes on. Apologies are made. So are wounds. I want to ask Adam to not hold this against me, to not think of this moment as he considers the future of our relationship. But he should. If he is going to truly love me, he needs to know it all: my capacity for pride, my selfish heart, the control-seeking that makes me desperate. These are the sides that make me wince and rattle off justifications for myself. These are things I want to hide.
And these are things that God already sees.
God is very aware of the idol I mold of control. He knows my irrational angst when interruptions snatch my precious free time. He hears the cocktail of excuses I mix to say that I’m not that bad and given the circumstances and if that miscommunication hadn’t happened and…and…and..
I want these excuses to stand. I want to believe that I am okay, that I’m mostly self-sufficient after the initial salvation stuff, that I have my act together. All evidence stands toward the contrary. My inconveniences do not include being crucified. Jesus bore that with less grumbling than I bear heavy traffic.
The fact remains that I am sinful.
And so, Lent.
I am learning the tandem gravity and joy of this season. Repentance is due. No excuses. We drove ourselves from the Garden and drove Jesus to his death. So we must confess that we have sinned, in thought word, and deed. We fast, believing that it shows us with sharper clarity our need for God. We pray. We beg for reconciliation, from God and from man, after our blunders. We whisper, “Lord, have mercy.”
We wait for Easter, and victory.
We have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
In your mercy
forgive what we have been,
help us to amend what we are,
and direct what we shall be;
that we may do justly,
and walk humbly with you, our God.
*from the Liturgy of the Church of England