Meditation for Ash Wednesday service (February 17, 2010).
Joel 2:13 "Rend your hearts and not your clothing . . . "
The early Christians observed, and many Christians in many different traditions today still observe, a time of focused devotion upon the Lord Jesus Christ during a season of repentance, struggle, and self-denial. This season is called “Lent” from the word meaning the lengthening of days as spring comes. Individually and corporately we have enjoyed benefits from observing this season which begins with Ash Wednesday. These days mark the Forty Days of Jesus in the wilderness in which Jesus faithfully relived the forty years of Israel in the wilderness. The Church begins this season forty days before Easter (not counting Sundays, which are never fast days but always the feast day of Resurrection).
The service for Ash Wednesday leads us into the penitential aspects of the season of Lent by providing a service of prayer and extended confession of sin. We are to appear before God with contrite hearts, knowing our weaknesses and failings. In our confession, instead of immediately hearing the beautiful notes of Absolution, we hear the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This service creates a memorial to our frailty, as well as sin. Just as in biblical times it is clear that ashes and sackcloth became a symbolic way to represent their official repentance/mourning, so the Church marked worshipers with the dust of ashes. In this act, we finally confess that all our finery, our clothing, our possessions, our abilities - all that we think that makes us who we are - is not at all who we are. We are only dust, and we stand before the Lord. Knowing this makes our anticipation of Easter more joyful since God has in Christ and has promised to glorify the dust of our bodies.
The Christian Holy War is a war with the most challenging enemy, our hearts. The Triune God has never asked for a mere external act. He has never said, just “act out” the tearing of a garment. Just put ashes on your face. Just say these words... In the beginning such a garment tearing was an outburst of an undone self. Ashes were the natural result of an untidy person who forgot their appearance altogether. Ashes were at the center of every home - or shall we say hut. Every person, without preparation had such dust of dust upon their face.
Later the religious and active, intentional mutilation of ordinary appearance was meaningful. I am in mourning. I am dressed in ashes and the most basic of clothing to cover my body. I have no rank, no dignity, no position in what I wear. I have on just the clothes of sacks for groceries. Sackcloth and ashes are the symbol. But it can easily just become just a rending of clothing and just a symbolic ash. So it is with every symbol. Every symbolic rite, every proper service, every liturgy, every predictable behavior can become “by rote” and not “by heart.”
We can learn all such things “by rote” and not learn them “by heart.” We can say “yes ma’am by rote.” We can salute the flag by rote. We can give attention by rote. We can say, “I love you” by rote. We can kiss our wives by rote. We can hug our children by rote. We can laugh with our friends by rote. We can greet others by rote: “I am doing fine....” though we are dying inside. We can do anything, much less “worship” by rote. We can “praise” “confess” “pray” “listen” “read” and sing with no heart at all. Our heart monitor can be flatlining during all of these activities.