Bishop Susan Bell's Message for Ash Wednesday and Lent
I won’t lie to you: it’s a tough day. Much more popular in our culture is Pancake or Shrove Tuesday. That’s a day most of us can get on board with. Shrove Tuesday is a day of indulgence – a day of lightness and sweetness – a day before a day of sacrifice.
Ash Wednesday is a contrast. Instead of lightness, it’s heavy. Instead of indulgence, it asks us for discipline, for an accounting.
More than anything it asks us for honesty, and a fearless kind of self-awareness. And that’s heavy lifting sometimes.
Sometimes we seek to soften the meaning of Ash Wednesday because it is so heavy. But as I become older and more experienced about relationships, about the world, about the culture we live in, about myself; as I understand more and more each year who I am and the God to whom I belong, I better appreciate what Ash Wednesday and also the whole 40 days of Lent asks of us.
And it occurs to me that if faith is to mean something – really mean something in our lives and in this world, that the practice of faith must create a space where we hear things that we can’t hear anywhere else – the truth about ourselves. In a pervasive post-truth culture, I think the integrity of this attempt is increasingly important, if not essential for our wholeness and well-being.
We all know that we fall short of the glory of God sometimes – we lie, we steal, we treat others and ourselves badly. We may do these things in small ways and large. Fill in the sentences as you like – perhaps we steal attention rather than objects; perhaps we lie to ourselves more than we do to others. But we do them. I say none of this to make any of us feel guilty. There is a huge difference between making someone feel guilty and revealing the truth.
See what I mean about Ash Wednesday? It’s heavy.
But there’s a crucial part of Ash Wednesday that I’ve not yet mentioned. As we take time in our churches to attend a service and to be marked with ashes, we draw on two millennia of tradition to experience a present moment of grace.
And that moment of grace contains some important truths: that our loving God is a God of second chances, of forgiveness, of limitless patience, a God of encouragement, a God of Hope, and a God of love.
In the words of the Ash Wednesday collect, “for God despises nothing that God has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.”
And that is probably the most important thing about Ash Wednesday and Lent.
Let me leave you with a beautiful poem I came across a few years ago. 2
It’s called: Within the Dust
All those days you felt like dust, like dirt, as if all you had to do was turn your face toward the wind and be scattered to the four corners or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial—
Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?
This is the day we freely say we are scorched.
This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning.
This is the moment we ask for the blessing that lives within the ancient
ashes, that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth.
So let us be marked not for sorrow. And let us be marked not for shame. Let us be marked not for false humility or for thinking we are less than we are.
But for claiming what God can do within the dust, within the dirt, within the stuff of which the world is made, and the stars that blaze in our bones, and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.