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Ash Wednesday 2008

This meditation was given in chapel on February 25, 2009,
by Debra Rienstra, Professor of English

This past interim, I read with my DCM ["Discerning the Christian Mind" course] students the beautiful novel Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.  I’d like to share with you a striking image from this novel as we think about ashes today.

Gilead is the story of a 76-year-old Iowa pastor who is reflecting on his life and writing a long letter to his young son, born to him in his old age.  In this particular passage, the pastor recalls a moment from his own childhood when he watched the community come together to help take down a church that had been struck by lightning.  They have one day to do this before harvest, and that day happens to bring pouring rain. 

The narrator describes taking shelter from the rain under a wagon with the other young children, while the grownups worked.  Then he writes:


The ashes turned liquid in the rain and the men who were working in the ruins got entirely black and filthy, till you would hardly know one from another.  My father brought me some biscuit that had soot on it from his hands.  “Never mind,” he said, “there’s nothing cleaner than ash.”  But it affected the taste of that biscuit, which I thought might have tasted like the bread of affliction….

….  I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me that biscuit from his scorched hand, with the old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing “The Old Rugged Cross” while they saw to things, moving so gently, as if they were dancing to the hymn almost. … It was so joyful and sad.  I mention it again because it seems to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment.  Grief itself has often returned me   to that morning, when I took communion from my father’s hand.  I remember it as communion, and I believe that’s what it was.

In this lovely passage, in the midst of a blackened wreck, ashes mix with rain, and a biscuit becomes a holy moment, a sacrament.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day when the traditions of the church call us to remember that we are dust.  Ashes mean repentance.  Ashes mean mourning.  Ashes mean something has been burned, and destroyed, and lost.  Ashes mean death. 

Ash Wednesday draws us into Lent, when we reflect on our own sins, and on Jesus’ forty days of solitude and temptation in the wilderness, and on this world’s darkness.  We should reflect on these things.  This is a wise and good tradition.  The discipline of it prepares us for the joy of Easter. 

But the trouble with the church year, sometimes, is that where we are in our own lives does not always quite mesh with the dates on the calendar.  Sometimes it’s hard to get into the spirit of things at the right moment, you know what I mean?

Maybe for you, this whole church year business is strange and new, and the prescribed patterns of it feel artificial and awkward.     

Or maybe, you know about Lent, and you see it coming around again and you think, Oh I don’t want to be all sad right now!  Things are going well!  I love my classes, I have wonderful friends, I am excited about my internship this summer.  I want to be happy; I feel like praising!  And now I’m supposed to put on a serious face, and deprive myself of something, and think about death and sin. 

Or maybe, you see Lent coming and you think: Ha.  I know all about ashes and death.  I have been walking through this valley for a long time already.  Maybe for you, school has always been a struggle.  Or you live with a chronic illness and every day feels like wilderness.  Or some kind of lightning has struck in your life this year, and you have watched people you love suffer and die.  Or you have lived someplace recently where injustice and corruption and poverty drove you mad with sorrow and frustration.  For you, Lent on the horizon looks like more of the same, just more labor among the burned-out wreck of the world.  You’ve tasted the bread of affliction plenty, and what you’d really like instead is some relief.

But I wonder if we’re thinking about Lent in the wrong spirit.  You know how it is at Calvin.  We do tend to turn everything into seriousness and solemnity and hard work.  Would it be possible to remember, even in the Lenten season, even on Ash Wednesday, that we worship a God of abundance?

Maybe some of you who are gardeners know that ashes can actually make excellent fertilizer.  Ash created by burning plant matter is full of calcium, potassium, magnesium, and other trace elements.  It can restore the Ph balance of overly acidic soil.  This is one reason why some forest ecosystems need occasional fires in order to spring back to life and thrive again.  But of course, even in your own garden, you have to use ash sparingly and in the right context.  Too much will make the soil too alkaline.  And of course, you have to add water.

So, what if we were to enter Lent thinking about ashes not as God’s call to be glum and sober and morbid, but as God’s call to a different kind of abundance.  Not the kind we focus on most of the time: abundance of material things like food and safe housing and economic prosperity—the kind that comes and goes and gets distributed all unevenly in the world.  But rather, what if we focus on the kind of abundance God offers, everywhere, for everyone, and without limit, in those places where we enter God’s presence: in prayer, in the study of the Word, in worship, in good friendships, in times of blessed silence, in acts of mercy.  Could we think of Lent as a time to enter into that abundance? 

You may be planning to give something up for Lent or practice some other kind of discipline, and that’s a good thing.  But maybe we can let these disciplines and deprivations be for us the way to a different kind of joy.  We could let them clear the underbrush so that we can taste and see God’s abundance, waiting to grow and thrive in the rich soil of prayer and worship, solitude and service.  And we could remember, too, that ashes must be used sparingly and in the right contexts, and we need to add water. 
Fortunately, we enter this time of sobriety and ashes already bearing water with us—the water of baptism.  Even Jesus needed this.  He entered the wilderness of silence and meditation only after his own baptism.  In this Christian community, in the traditions of the church, the waters of baptism are already pouring down all around us.  These waters are a sign and seal that, although we may be blackened with ash from our labor in this wreck of a world, although we are dust, we are dust coming to new and abundant life by water and the Spirit.

This year, may the ashes of Lent mix with the waters of our baptism and draw us into the abundance of God’s own presence.  May the bread of affliction become for all of us the bread of communion with our Lord.