On Ash Wednesday

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[Reposted from Jonathan-Rogers.com]

It’s Ash Wednesday. Yesterday my friend Father Thomas, an Anglican priest, burned the palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday to make the ashes to rub on people’s foreheads today. “Remember that you are dust,” he will say to them, “and to dust you shall return.”

I didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent, but I have to say, at this age it helps to be reminded that I am dust and returning to dust. It’s not just a help, but a comfort. This world is forever demanding that we take it as seriously as it takes itself, and it tempts us to take ourselves too seriously too. Ash Wednesday says, “No, no, no, dear sinner. You’re just dust, living in a world that’s just dust, and you and the world both are returning to dust. And you are dear to God nevertheless.”

I love the prayer in the Anglican Ash Wednesday liturgy:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wickedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

I used to associate Ash Wednesday–when I considered it at all–with self-flagellation. But, as the apostle Paul said, it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance–the confidence that God hates nothing he has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.

For all my ambivalence about T.S. Eliot, there are passages in his poem “Ash Wednesday” that I just love. The lines I love the most in that poem, the lines that most perfectly capture the spirit of the day, are these:

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.

“I’m not worthy.” True enough. But not the truest thing. The Lord speaks truer things into being every day.

So happy Ash Wednesday, you old sinner. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. And God loves you anyway.

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Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


17 Comments

  1. Peter B

    Thank you for the reminder. That centurion’s words keep popping up over the place — and what an amazing comfort they are to those of us who too-often don’t admit the obvious.

    One little niggle (because I really want to know): how would the writer(s) of that Anglican prayer address the passage where God says “Esau have I hated”?

  2. yankeegospelgirl

    Eliot himself is of course quoting from the Liturgy. We say it every week in my church before Communion:

    Lord I am not worthy that thou should’st come under my roof. But speak the word only and my soul shall be healed. (Repeated 3x)

  3. April Pickle

    “Ash Wednesday says, ‘No, no, no, dear sinner. You’re just dust, living in a world that’s just dust, and you and the world both are returning to dust. And you are dear to God nevertheless.'”
    I love this. It speaks to me the same way as “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only One Thing is needed.”

  4. Thomas McKenzie

    Jonathan, great post. I’m honored by the shout-out.

    Since you invoked me, I will step away from my duties to answer on behalf of my little tribe.

    In order to argue against the phrase “you hate nothing you have made” I think you would have to argue against John 3:16. God appears to love the kosmos (the world, the entire created order) so much that he gives his only Son for it. I can’t think of anything that looks less like hatred.

    I think you’d also have to ask what you think the essential character of God is. Is he love (as he claims in 1 John 4:8), or is he loving to some and hateful to others? If love is essential to his being, then saying that he hates, in the way we normally use that word in the English language, is quite a stretch.

    Of course, we aren’t dealing with the English language or Western culture. I think the use of “hate” in the Bible verse mentioned, when seen in context, leads one to see love/hate as a way of saying chosen/not-chosen. There is an accurate and short little article about that distinction here: http://www.gotquestions.org/Jacob-Esau-love-hate.html

    Ultimately, the Church (at best) views all of scripture through the interpretive lens of Christ. If we can say anything of Jesus, we can certainly say that his entire being points to a God who hates nothing he has made. If we find a Bible verse that we think indicates God hates someone (in the way we commonly use the word “hate”), then I would suggest we are interpreting that verse incorrectly.

    I have to run. Time to tell people that God loves them so much he came to suffer and die for them. Enough arguing over words (2 Timothy 2:14)

    Thomas+

  5. Arthur

    Jonathan! Was talking with my students about Ash Wednesday today. Should have just read them this post. Loved it!

  6. Leanne Bruno

    In a hermeneutics class last year, my teacher addressed that “Esau I have hated” thing and said it was a literary device to emphasize the contrast of God’s great affection for Jacob. Like, “I love Jacob so much, it’s as if I hated Esau.” Not a literal hating, just an emphasis on his overwhelming love for Jacob.

    At least, that’s what my professor said.

    And Jonathan, as to your writing about Lent: love it. Sweet words.

  7. Connie Cartisano

    I love to see the good in religious ceremonies. Thank you for pointing it out in this. I was raised Roman Catholic and did not understand much of what it was all about. But now as a devoted follower of Christ, I am grateful to have been exposed to it. It is a wealth of spiritual nourishment for me.

  8. Peter B

    Thanks, Thomas. I wouldn’t classify this as the futile “arguing over words”; what we say about God matters a great deal, and I appreciate the time and effort you spent responding to my question.

  9. Lori Ann

    Thank you for your post. Had to share my first Ash Wednesday memory – nothing spirtual about it. I was raised in an Evangelical Protestant church where we really did not celebrate Ash Wednesday an certainly not with palms and ashes. My first nursing job was in a Catholic Hospital. So, as a young 21 y/o, arrived for work on the night shift and promptly went up to my friend and “wiped” the dirt off her forehead only to turn and see two shifts of nurses, mouths hangining open as if they expected a lightening bolt from heaven to strike me dead. Oblivious I question, “What, she had a smudge of dirt on her forehead?” Everyone else speechless as my friend whispered, “Ashes. It was ashes from the priest for Ash Wednesday”. Never wiped anyones face after that without checking the calendar first! Oh the stories I could tell. 🙂

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