Ash Wednesday is My Jam!

Ash Wednesday 2020 – Rev. Aimee Baxter

You know how you hear a song on the radio and you really connect with it? It seems to speak to your soul on a deeper level than others. When that happens, you often refer to that song as your jam. Well, Ash Wednesday is my jam! My guess is that most, if not all of you, have never had a minister stand up before you on this day where we call the fast to Lent and declare those words. That being said, I do love Ash Wednesday and I love Lent!

But why might you ask? I think it’s a combination of things.

My first experience with Ash Wednesday actually didn’t occur until I was in college. I joined the liturgical dance team at the Auburn Wesley Foundation and found out pretty quickly that we were responsible for the Ash Wednesday service. It was such a different experience of worship for me because the entirety of the service was dance. Preparation began as early as Christmas and we’d spend months getting ready and pondering the best way to get our people to a place where they were ready to receive the ashes and journey into Lent. We did all of that without words, just movement.

It was such a special time in my life because it made Ash Wednesday accessible to me. The truth is this day has the potential to be a little overwhelming and a bit odd if you are new to it, but we know that it really is for everyone - to simply come as you are. Since college, I have never missed celebrating Ash Wednesday. So, no matter where you are on your journey or how familiar you are with this act of worship, Ash Wednesday is a gift for all of us to receive.

Secondly, Ash Wednesday and Lent our still ours as a church. It’s one of the few seasons that hasn’t been taken over and commercialized. You most likely won’t see any sort of promotional offering you half-off of your lunch or dinner today because you have ashes on your forehead. And you probably won’t be able to buy furniture at a discount or be told that you need to get those Lenten presents before you run out of time! It is still ours to honor and set apart as holy – and that really is a big deal.

So, what do we do with this sacred time that is just ours? Our readings actually give us some pretty good insight. They call us to declare a fast, to set aside a particular season or time in our lives where we move perhaps with a bit more intention and self-sacrifice in an effort to grow more in faithfulness and discipleship.

Historically, we’ve responded to this call by giving up something or fasting from a particular food or habit.  It can be chocolate, fried food or soda. We can fast from complaining, social media, the news. I have a friend who is literally never seen in public without lipstick and one year she chose to fast from wearing it. It was quite the experience for her!

Others honor this Lenten season as an opportunity to add a new discipline into their daily living. Reading more, a prayer walk each morning, volunteering at a local ministry one day a week. You see us doing this as a church through our Lenten studies, a Quiet Day on Prayer, a food drive to benefit I Am Food Pantry.

There have even been some who have suggested that we practice doing nothing throughout Lent by laying down our busyness, and leaning into the quiet, still, small voice.

Whether it is giving up or adding something, the hope for Lent is to grow our faith and obedience to God and to come to a place where we realize it really isn’t about us. Matthew tells us essentially to honor the fast, but by all means don’t make a spectacle out of it. Don’t make it all about what you are doing. It’s not intended to be a woe is me season in our lives, but one that sets us on a path of obedience to grow in the knowledge and love of God, but to store up for yourselves treasures filled with heavenly things.

Isaiah takes it a step further by saying this treasure we’ve stored up in our hearts should overflow with action and a desire to engage in the injustice of the world. Yes, this is a time of renewal for ourselves, but if we stop there we lose the whole point of the fast. Isaiah’s call is active and encourages us to be about the Kingdom.

Loose the bonds of injustice.

Let the oppressed go free.

Share your bread with the hungry.

Bring the homeless poor into your house.

Clothe the naked.

When these things are part of the fast, here’s the result...

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:8-10)

When the fast goes beyond ourselves, we become agents of the Kingdom of God.

Are you starting to understand why it’s my jam?

Mostly, I love Ash Wednesday because as a recovering perfectionist and people pleaser, it’s a day where we seem willing to name our humanity and settle into it. It’s a time to be real with ourselves, each other and God.

Our Psalm says it so well in verses 13-14, “Like a parent feels compassion for their children – that's how the Lord feels compassion for those who honor him. Because God knows how we’re made, God remembers we’re just dust.”

Oh, what freedom that gives us! In other words, drop the act, God knows that we’re just dust.

There’s a cartoon that circulates this time of year that is a picture of a minister imposing the ashes on someone’s forehead and she says, “Remember that you are dust, but a very high quality sort of dust.”

It could be easy to hear this reminder of our humanity and it feel like a big ol’ slice of humble pie, but that is not the intent. It could also be easy to enter into a season of self-denial and get bogged down in the reality of our brokenness and sinfulness, but that is also not at the heart of Lent.

I came across a quote from Pope Francis that further articulates the point, “Sin is more than a stain. Sin is a wound; it needs to be treated and healed.”

I’m assuming most of you have had some sort of wound in your lives and you know the care that it takes to heal that wound fully. When I heard these words, I immediately thought of my post-surgery incision site. I find that it can still ache at times even though my surgery was a good eight months ago. I asked a friend who is a physician about that little bit of pain I was feeling and he told me that while our wounds are healing, the tissue underneath can get caught up in itself. In order to make it better, we have to massage the wound to break up the tissue. A little painful but a necessary step to healing.

Lent is the time in our lives to address the sin that distances us from God and massage out the places where we are all caught up in ourselves to bring about healing. Not intended to break us, but to restore us. The cross of ash on our foreheads isn’t meant to be a scarlet letter or a stain, but a reminder of our humanity and dependency on the One who created us. The One who knows exactly what we are made of and meets us with a call to repentance and a promise of forgiveness.

As you prepare to come forward tonight and have ashes placed on your forehead, hear this blessing written by Jan Richardson for Ash Wednesday.

Blessing the Dust For Ash Wednesday
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. Amen.