[Editor’s note: Throughout Lent, Sandra McCracken will be sharing weekly writings, each of which is tied to a song from her new EP, Songs from the Valley, available at her website. Below you will find the first of these writings, which was originally posted on Ash Wednesday. It is to be read alongside her song, “Fool’s Gold,” which you can listen to here.]
To ascend the hill, you have to start at the very bottom. From here, it often feels like what’s ahead is a steep climb. Today is Ash Wednesday, the day when many followers of Jesus remember that we have come from dust, and to dust we will return. We mark our foreheads with ashes and we pray.
The people of Israel used to travel annually to the temple to make sacrifices for their sins. They journeyed up a long climb, a slow ascent toward Jerusalem. The Psalms of Ascent (beginning with Psalm 120) are the songs they would sing together as they walked. As I’ve begun to ask questions about some of the ancient traditions of Lent and Easter, I have found unexpected beauty in practices that at first seemed a bit strange to me or even morbid.
I’ve come to appreciate that the observance of Ash Wednesday can be a compelling demonstration of humility. Many people give something up during the 6 weeks of lent, like sugar or coffee or wine. These small ways of holding back remind us that we have limitations. We have hunger. The hunger is already there, of course. But when we give something up, we are making the space to feel it.
The ashes of repentance on my forehead help me to remember that I have not always been here on this earth. And one day I will return to dust. I am a sinner whose offenses are both known and unknown. Do I really feel my need for God? Do I cry out to him? Or do I just manage to keep busy enough to superficially forget how truly dependent I am upon him for every good thing?
This brings up a theological question. What’s the difference between penance and practice? Fasting does not earn us points with God, because if we are in a relationship with Jesus, His love for us is sealed in Jesus’ work on our behalf. We cannot add or take away a single thing to the finished work of Christ.
But fasting can be a way to reckon with our spiritual hunger. When my young children save their allowance money for a special occasion, it’s hard for them to wait. But restraint and anticipation enlarges their hearts for the celebration. Fasting opens us up to be able to feast more fully.
The best part is still ahead, and it’s coming soon. This is not the end. This is not the whole story, but the journey starts with ashes. The way down is the way up. I am living forward into that light. I am trusting the promise (from Psalm 23) that the Lord is with us in the valley of the shadow of death.
Though the details of our stories are varied, the same story has been written on each of our hearts. Ashes transformed into beauty is the story of redeeming grace, of light breaking in, of ascending the hill, of singing the songs of ascent so that when we get to the top, we will join in that glorious celebration. There, we will each find our own seat at the table.
And along the way, grace happens every time the sun comes up over the horizon; even when we sleep through it with the shades drawn; even when the sun is hidden by storm clouds; always, it faithfully rises. May these ashes be a sign-post. We are walking each other home.
Suggestion for prayer: Meditate on this verse or read it a few times slowly, letting the words lead you into conversation with God.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” –Psalm 23
What does the word “death” feel like for you when you read this today? The idea might feel far away or it might make you think of physical death or a death of another kind. What comes to mind for you? Ask God to be with you in the valley of the shadow. Ask him to walk you home or to shelter you in the valley. Close your prayer in gratitude.