Ash Wednesday: Preparing for a Season of Messiness

Yesterday, ashes were smudged in the sign of the cross on my forehead. I shuffled in a line toward the front of the seminary auditorium, and I looked into the minister’s eyes for half a second before closing mine and hearing ancient words: “From dust you were created”—his thumb smoothed ash upward in a vertical line—“to dust you shall return”—another ash line across, the dash on my gravestone between birthday and death.

There were three people imposing ashes, one for each section of the auditorium. The woman on the left marked thin, neat lines on the brow of each patron, while those who approached the man on the right came away with tidy, miniature smudges, more like large dots than crosses. But us sinners in the center got the full treatment—you’d think the minister was using three fingers to smear the ash all over our foreheads. We looked dirty and tired, like little newsies or chimney sweeps.

A foreign vulnerability hung in the air, an unspoken sense of, “Ah, yes, this is who we really are.” Brokenhearted, bewildered, wandering. I noticed others shyly checking out everyone else, like junior highers in their underwear in the locker room.

“Do I have to keep this on all day?” I wondered, and asked myself again, later, when I looked into the bathroom mirror at work and saw not only a blackened forehead, but smudges on my cheekbones and nose as well—I must have brushed my hair out of my eyes and spread the ash. But I determined to keep it on, for this is who I really am. I preen and groom myself to appear put together, but today the truth—that I’m still undone—is what greets everyone I meet.

A few days ago, I was really trying to figure out this whole Lent business. I thought I should “give something up” for it, but it’s not as easy as saying “chocolate” and being done with it—my relationship with food is too complicated to try and mix that with penitence. A fast would easily become a secret diet strategy or subtle self-punishment. Then I considered giving up my lunch-time iced tea, but immediately recoiled at the thought, then promptly decided such a strong negative reaction means I really must give it up. In a desperate attempt to protect my little midday refreshment ritual, I began to wonder, What’s Lent all about anyway?

As a Pentecostal, I probably didn’t hear about it until my twenties. I know that Lent is about preparing for Easter, and apparently the forty days of fasting are symbolic of Jesus’s forty days of temptation in the wilderness. But that period of temptation was before he began his public ministry—over three years prior to his death. So what did Jesus do forty days before his death, before his resurrection? And, perhaps just as important for me, what did his disciples do beforehand, as we all know that my “dying” to an Oreo craving just isn’t the same as his death that redeemed the world.

Based on the story we have, it looks like Jesus’s disciples, during this time, hung out with him. They squabbled over who would be first in his kingdom, and they wondered who would be the one to betray him. They ate and drank with him—they slept and sailed and walked. They let him wash their feet and one even leaned against his chest and heard his heartbeat. They refused to believe when he predicted that they would abandon him, and they fell asleep when he asked them to keep watch. They listened, interrupted, watched, waited, doubted, deserted, and one lopped a guy’s ear off.

Jesus tried to prepare them, but they were bumblers to the end. What makes me think I’m any different? Do I assume that if I give up cookies or Facebook or iced tea, God will be obligated to draw near to me? Do I think that such a fast is a foolproof recipe for a broken and contrite heart? This morning, someone called Lent “a season of mindfulness,” and that’s what I want most—to be mindful of my grasping for control, of how deep and manipulative it is, so that it even dons the disguise of penitent fasting. I want to be mindful of my own dirty beginnings and messy existence, of others’ shame and vulnerability, and of our bottomless needs.

I pray that I will come to Easter, not victorious over a successful fast, but broken over my inadequacy to defend the helpless, to share with the hungry, to love the stranger. And I hope that in my brokenness, I will know that when my forehead is black with ash and when I doubt and desert him, Jesus still lays down his life, and Easter still comes.


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