Ashes to Ashes

palms for ash wednesday

“Images from the Ash Wednesday liturgy are spoken over bodies not only in church buildings at the beginning of Lent but also outdoors in all seasons of the year: “We commit this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (ELW, p. 284). In the funeral liturgy, such words are spoken after the body is laid in the grave and as earth is cast onto the coffin, or as ashes are placed in the earth or into a columbarium. Each year, the Ash Wednesday liturgy offers every member of the church words and a gesture that seem to have arrived, ahead of time, from our own funeral liturgy. Earth is placed on our bodies, scriptural words about the inevitable decomposition of our bodies are spoken over us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Among the many things that Ash Wednesday accomplishes is a small-scale, ritualized, near-death experience.” (Excerpt from Worship Guidebook for Lent and Three Days, Augsburg Fortress, 2009, p. 18)

In seminary I had a systematic theology professor who often welcomed us to class with these words: “Greetings, frail creatures of dust!” Now, that may seem like an odd way to welcome people, but it has a theological underscoring that is significant. In the end, after all is said and done, we go back to being what we were all along – dust.

Ash Wednesday (February 13) is the first day of Lent in our liturgical calendar. It occurs 46 days before Easter. The precise date of Ash Wednesday is always moveable, falling on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter. Why 46 days? According to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this 40-day liturgical period of prayer and fasting. Why are there an extra six days? Because there are six Sundays during the season of Lent, and every Sunday is the day of resurrection (a little Easter). On Sundays the fast of Lent is broken in celebration of the resurrection.

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the forehead as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically created from the burnt palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday services.

Historically, Ash Wednesday and the following season of Lent was the time of final preparations for baptism. Catechumens, people desiring to join the church and receiving instruction about the Christian faith, experienced an intense time of prayer, fasting, exorcisms, and teaching. Finally, at dawn on Easter Sunday, after an all night Vigil, the catechumens were baptized and welcomed into the body of Christ by participating in the Eucharist for the first time. Ash Wednesday was the beginning of a season of life, death, and renewal.

But why do we have to be so morbid about it? Because no matter how much wealth, no matter how many material possessions, no matter how much plastic surgery, no matter how much exercise and fitness, no matter how much success, no matter how much fame and notoriety, in the end, we go back to being what we were all along – dust.

Holy Week 2011 – Wednesday

The texts assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Wednesday of Holy Week are Isaiah 50:4-9a (Servant’s humiliation and vindication), Psalm 70 (may all who search for you be filled with joy), Hebrews 12:1-3 (let us fix our eyes on Jesus), and John 13:21-32 (Jesus fortells his betrayal).

John 13:21-30 (NLT):

Now Jesus was deeply troubled, and he exclaimed, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me!”

The disciples looked at each other, wondering whom he could mean. The disciple Jesus loved was sitting next to Jesus at the table. Simon Peter motioned to him to ask, “Who’s he talking about?” So that disciple leaned over to Jesus and asked, “Lord, who is it?”

Jesus responded, “It is the one to whom I give the bread I dip in the bowl.” And when he had dipped it, he gave it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot. When Judas had eaten the bread, Satan entered into him. Then Jesus told him, “Hurry and do what you’re going to do.” None of the others at the table knew what Jesus meant. Since Judas was their treasurer, some thought Jesus was telling him to go and pay for the food or to give some money to the poor. So Judas left at once, going out into the night.

How awkward that last supper must have been?!? Can you imagine the bizarre, stupefying events that must have left the disciples feeling like they had the wind knocked out of them? First instead of the traditional Passover they get the orders for a new covenant, a new meal, a new way of doing things like they’ve never been done before. Then the leader takes the towel and basin and washes the smelly, sweaty, animal-feces-stained feet of the no-name, reject followers he had called out of their lame lives. Then he starts talking about betrayal and accuses Peter of denial. If I were a disciple that had walked with Jesus, seen miracles, healings, dead people get out of tombs, this supposed-Passover celebration would have been the icing on the cake! I would have been left dumbfounded. Nothing was what you thought it was going to be.

Even more dumbfounding for us who see the story unfold 2000 years later is the fact that the betrayer was present at the table. Jesus was putting the whole “love your enemies” thing into practical application right there at the table. Jesus didn’t kick Judas out. He didn’t deny him entry to the table fellowship that night. He didn’t take away his “disciple card.” He welcomed him, supped with him, and included him – just like Jesus does with everyone. Just like Jesus does with us every time betrayal enters our hearts. When we turn our backs on God, when we forget he exists, when we scream our discontented situations at him – he welcomes us at the table. Always.

Prayer for Wednesday of Holy week (from the Book of Common Prayer):

Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the suffering of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ you Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.