I went to Ash Wednesday for only the second time in my life in 2002. It was the day Waylon Jennings died--somehow I remember that. I’d been going to church regularly for a year and at Pentecost that year I would be confirmed at Augustana Lutheran Church on the Southside of Chicago.
In those years the neighborhood Lutheran church partnered with the Episcopal church for weekday church holidays. So I took the bus up to the Episcopal church and found my seat. I don’t remember much about that service--certainly not the sermon or any of the hymns. I only remember two things: at the confession of sins that began the service, Pastor Gorder and the Episcopal priest both kneeled at the altar rail, facing away from us. In a year of regular churchgoing I don’t think I’d ever seen that. The gesture stunned me. Here were the people responsible for bringing me the Word of God and the Sacrament of grace, the people who reassured me by the presence of their faces, eye to eye with me in the sanctuary, if nothing else, that I was being seen and acknowledged. Now, all of a sudden, here they were on their knees, facing away from me. Now we were all in the same boat, looking up to the same God, needing the same forgiveness.
And then, the second thing I remember: during the imposition of ashes, everyone came up, including people who brought their little children. The only time I’d been to Ash Wednesday before this was at a campus chapel where there were no children, only young adults being brave and realistic about our mortality. Here a father and a daughter were being ashed together. Both of them dust, both doomed to return to dust. It’s obvious--the most obvious thing in the world, that even little children are mortal--but it struck me deeply. We were all in the same boat, under the same fate, looking to God together.
I remember leaving church alone, in the cold of a Chicago February night, with a restless urgency. Waylon Jennings was dead, God rest him. At the library that night I went online (in those days we had to go to the library to get online) and I saw a news story that a musician I’d never heard of, someone who did electronic music, had died suddenly at the age of 30. For perhaps the first time in my life I instinctively crossed myself in a silent prayer for the dead. I was spiritually breathless. “We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying and see--we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” I didn’t know at the time that Paul was talking with the “royal we,” about himself. I thought he was talking about all Christians. And I thought I understood what he meant.
Ash Wednesday is a day on which we are defenseless. We might love learning and beauty and wisdom; we might make a glorious offering of our song; we might attain to some understanding of God’s word and thus converse with Him, not as equals but as least as friends. And yet on Ash Wednesday we surrender all of that. “Create in me a clean heart”--give me a new one, don’t tinker with the old. “Cast me not away from your presence”--do not toss me out, much as I may have deserved just that. When you give alms, give them in secret, even from yourselves; do not poison your gift with any awareness and any thought of reward.
The thing is, you don't need theology or doctrine or the history of the church for this to make sense. All of this is real: dust to dust, a humble and contrite heart, prayer and alms and fasting in secret. Today is the grim festival of the human condition. Today even Pastor John Gorder’s kindly face was hidden from me while we all kneeled before God.
Yet we do not gather before God today merely to weep and wail and shudder with dread. We are called out of the world today, and out of our daily lives, for the same purpose that God calls us every Sunday until the end of time. We are called out to be given a different kind of assurance than any we can give ourselves or each other. Your heavenly Father, Jesus says, sees in secret and rewards in secret. The world doesn’t know your good deeds, and even you don’t know your good deeds, but God does. The new heart we ask for, God will provide, as often as we need it. The servant of God who is unknown and despised in the world is known to God, perhaps sorrowful today or many days, and yet always rejoicing; poor in spirit and yet rich through faith; empty handed and yet possessing the whole kingdom of God.
And most wonderfully and mysteriously, we experience this hidden blessing together as one body. We share a telltale sign on our faces: we are mortal, and we need a savior. No point in denying it. We are here together, helpless and defenseless, just as we are without one plea. But it pleases God to call us together, out of the world and out of our daily lives, to experience our human need together. We are all in the same boat--you, me, Pastor Gorder, Waylon Jennings, that little baby in Chicago eighteen years ago. But it is God’s boat, and it goes where God leads it: safe to shore. Amen.