22 February 2012

why ashes?

Ashes are messy; sin is messy. These words have been unforgettable since I heard them this morning. They were spoken, with love and conviction, by a beloved, retired Episcopal bishop who took time to explain the significance of ashes. He didn't assume that we knew, although many did.

This was my first time to participate in an Ash Wednesday service. To be honest, I really didn't have a desire to participate. I didn't know what to expect. I feel like I've embraced other parts of the Episcopal worship service during my time at a school of the denomination. I love the liturgy, the act of corporate worship. I love the act of coming forward for communion and using real wine to intinct (dip) the bread. I love reciting the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed. But ashes seemed to take it a step past my comfort zone.

When I sat down with my program in hand, I didn't intend to go forward to receive a cross of ashes, or even a blessing. I decided that listening to and reciting Psalms of confession would be good enough to prepare my heart for the Lenten season. (I've participated in Lent for about a decade, sometimes I'm more successful at my sacrifice or added discipline than others.) But then the bishop read a passage about the significance of ashes. And I felt a stir in my heart...the stirring that only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.

As I sat and waited for 200+ students to receive ashes, I thought and had a sweet time with the Lord. I wanted to search my heart and determine why I didn't want to receive a cross of ashes: Was it just because it took me out of my comfort zone? Was it just a little "too Episcopalian" for me? Sadly, it wasn't either of these. I didn't want to participate in this tradition because I didn't want ashes on my forehead all day. I was worried about what others would think. I didn't want to have to explain the mark on my forehead to those unfamiliar with the tradition. This is where the Holy Spirit softly whispered in my heart that the way I deal with sin is all too similar. I don't like confession. I don't want others to know the rotten parts of my life.

So, I went forward and my first cross of ashes was placed on my forehead. The service ended shortly thereafter, and I went to back to my office. My day was busy. Within just a few hours, I'd completely forgotten about the cross of ashes on my brow. Again, conviction of the Holy Spirit stirred within my heart. All too often, I disregard the sin in my life. The messy parts. I get busy and move in the hurried pace of life, ignoring the glaring blackness in my life.

This day has been a day of reflection and repentance. My heart has broken from my own selfishness and pride a few times. I hope that these days of Lent will prepare my heart for the celebration of our King.

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