Tough Language

Every year, it seems, when I encounter the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I am struck by the force of much of the language that is used.  In the Book of Common Prayer, the collect or prayer for the day mentions human “sin and wretchedness”.  The prayers used throughout the service sound these themes frequently, and many of them beseech God to not remain angry with us and, instead, to have mercy.  It is easy to emerge from the Ash Wednesday service with a sense of how terrible we are and how much God has to hold against us.  Not all that long ago, I wrote a blog entry about “Enough with the Wretchedness”, lamenting the theological prominence enjoyed by the concept that we are miserable sinners who are lucky that God tolerates us.  Yet, in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, it is hard not to leave the service with that impression.

For myself, I have found a way to bring this language into my heart in a way that is helpful.  Because in an important way, I think the language serves to wake me up to a spiritual truth that perhaps truly lies at the heart of the Lenten journey of which Ash Wednesday is the beginning:  the truth of our self-centeredness.  If one looks at the Ash Wednesday liturgy more deeply, coupled with the Bible readings that are read, a message emerges which we need to hear:  this journey of following Christ is not all about me.  Yet, over and over again, I tend to want to make the spiritual journey with myself at the center of the universe.  I really would like everything to be about me.  It would be great if the world would revolve around me.  How many of us spend time and energy trying to bend the world around us to our will, to make things work out the way we would like them to?

Yet, Lent arrives every year to remind us that our life in Christ is not primarily about us.  It is about moving beyond ourselves to recognize our connection with the whole human family, with all of creation, and ultimately with God.  For we only truly find ourselves when we are able to lose ourselves in that great communion of being.

So we begin with the ashes of Ash Wednesday:  reminders of our mortality, to be sure, but also a reminder that we are made of the same stuff as the ashes that are placed upon us.  Fundamentally, we and everything around us are ashes in various states of being.  And in, through and around all this ash is the reality of God.  May we have the grace to encounter the harder language of Lent as a wake up call to recognize that the path that leads to destruction is the path of serving the self.  The narrow path, the one that leads to true life, is the path of serving God as revealed in one another and in all that lives around us.

3 thoughts on “Tough Language

  1. So, I take it you don’t miss the Commination? No? Me, either!

    Thank you for your reflections, Matthew–after reading this, for the first time I’m led to reflect on connection between the coal ash spill in our neighborhood and the ashes of Ash Wednesday. Three plus years is a long time for Ash Wednesday to last.

  2. Interesting the different things that people notice…I was noticing all of the places in the liturgy where we were reassured of God’s love and forgiveness, starting with the Collect. In a time and place where someone like Fred Phelps is wandering around and screaming about what God supposedly hates, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…” at the beginning of the service makes a strong impression. I’ve often said that the genius of Christianity is this: We kill God, and God forgives us anyway. The fact that that radical forgiveness is ours means that there’s no point in trying to hide our sins from God: We’re forgiven in any case. If we don’t have to hide them from God, we don’t have to hide them from ourselves. And it is only through being rigourously honest with ourselves that we can understand ourselves, love ourselves, and learn from our mistakes.

  3. Thank you, Matthew, for these insights on Ash Wednesday. To me this gave new meaning to the saying that we must lose our life in order to find it. This insight also helps explain the importance of contemplative prayer and our other spiritual practices, including service to others. I look forward to going deeper into this throughout Lent.

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