Lent began this week on Ash Wednesday.
I have had mixed feelings about Ash Wednesday over the years, but have always appreciated the reminder of my physical frailty coupled with the glorious power of God.
It is on Ash Wednesday we are told “Remember o man, that dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” It is on Ash Wednesday we consider our falling aways, our errors, those times when we have not loved enough. Ash Wednesday reminds us of who we are as though we looked in a mirror and really saw ourselves.
It’s not always pretty. But then, God breathes upon us, stirs our hearts to life. He breathes upon our dust as He did with Adam and gives us life. We rise into glorious eternity. We know joy. We love again.
In this sense Ash Wednesday is one of the most meaningful days in the Church Year. We see our bodies, turning to ash. Then we see our new life in Christ, rebirthing us, resurrecting us with him from the ash. We rise like the phoenix, from our own ash. This is Lent.
We visited St. Joseph of Arimathea Seminary Chapel in Berkeley this year for the evening Ash Wednesday service and the experience still haunts me with its extraordinary beauty. St. Joseph’s is not large – perhaps seats sixty if we squeeze in together. It is built in the Byzantine style, simple with a high vault and an ancient sounding organ. We took our places on one of the benches and listened to the organ play an introit. Then the front door opened and twelve UC students processed in, two by two, robed and carrying candles in the dark. A thurifer prepared the way with incense billowing, and the crucifer carried the crucifix high. The students are the Cal Crew who reside on the adjacent property and join in the worship services from time to time. The effect was stunning, in this grotto-like chapel, with the candle light and the medieval-sounding organ.
The acolytes and clergy took places in the chancel. The ashes were blessed and we stepped to the altar to have the priest make a cross upon our foreheads, dipping his finger in the ash and saying the words Remember o man… He painted our skin with this gritty black symbol of our joy, the reminder of God’s promises to us. Soon, we knew, we would celebrate Our Lord’s resurrection, and also our own. The Mass continued, through the lessons and homily and the offering of ourselves to this Lord of love. We received our communions, communing with Him, and with each other as the Body of Christ.
We were a mixed group, from babies to ninety-year-olds. Our Archbishop in his white robe sat in the chancel, gazing upon us thoughtfully, praying his love, as a shepherd cares for his sheep.
Soon we sang the recessional, (was it The Old Rugged Cross?) and the acolytes and clergy moved down the aisle, holding the flaming candles and crucifix, lighting the way, into the dark of Durant Street and the boom box noise and exhaust fumes and confusion of Berkeley. We said our prayers, thankful for this refuge of hope on this Ash Wednesday, 2011, and gathered together for lentil soup in the small house behind the chapel.
I was thankful for these moments, this time of beginning the season of Lent. I was thankful that my topsy turvy world was righted by this beautiful ceremony, a liturgy that made sense of all the suffering, bickering, and trials of life. For as Christ’s Body, I became new once again. I was thankful to be a part of this making sense, this truth of our world and of the God who made me, breathed life upon my ashen dust.