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Let the Ashes Linger

by: Alan Ward

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It is a tradition at many churches to mark the beginning of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service. Usually near the end of the service, participants are symbolically marked with the sign of the cross using ashes that are made from the withered palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. We are reminded that like those Palm Branches, “We are dust, and to dust we shall return.” We’re asked to confront and contemplate our own mortality and to remember the death of Jesus and what it means to us. That’s not easy for us. I for one hate thinking about my own mortality or that of others. I hate going to funeral homes; they make me feel creepy. I know death is a part of life, but I confess that I am still uneasy in that realm.

St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite monk who lived during the sixteenth century. He was one of the greatest poets of the Spanish Renaissance and a leading authority of Western mysticism. John’s writings focused the soul's journey toward God, and detailed the three stages of spiritual progress: purgation, illumination, and union. John essentially believed that the only way we can “go deeper” in our relationship with God is to first let God “burn away” ignorances and imperfections, habitual, natural, and spiritual, that separate us from God—purgation. Once we begin to remove those impediments to our progress, we can experience illumination and have “eyes to see” clearly who God is and move toward a deeper, more intimate relationship—union—with God.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I would just assume skip purgation, and jump right to illumination and union. Purgation (i.e., burning away) sounds messy and painful. I want to go deeper in my relationship with God; I want to be transformed into a new creation; but I want to do it on my terms; I want to take an easier road that doesn’t require much of me, that doesn’t cost anything, that pretty much lets me stay in control of the process. I imagine John of the Cross knew we’d be tempted to skip the hard part of the process. He said, “The gate entering into these riches of wisdom [e.g., illumination and union] is the cross, which is narrow, and few desire to enter by it but many desire the delights obtained from entering there.”

Personally, I fear that too often, the cross marked on my forehead on Ash Wednesday only goes skin deep. I quickly forget about it when I wash it off in an hour or two later. But the season of Lent should force us to linger on the cross and particularly, on the death of Christ. We need to remember that without Christ’s death on the cross, there is no resurrection; the two are inseparable. We have a tendency to want to rush to the celebration of Easter—it’s only natural to do this and avoid having to dwell on the unpleasantness of death—but I believe Easter Sunday will be all the more significant to us if we allow ourselves to fully experience the season of Lent, which includes somber services such as those on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Marcus Borg says it well.

“The Lenten journey, with its climax in Holy Week and Good Friday and Easter, is about participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Put somewhat abstractly, this means dying to an old identity—the identity conferred by culture, by tradition, by parents, perhaps—and being born into a new identity—an identity centered in the Spirit of God. It means dying to an old way of being, and being born into a new way of being, a way of being centered once again in God.”

Lent reminds us that there is no easy road to transformation. To experience change that goes more than skin deep, the cross has to be given time to penetrate into the very core of who we are, and that has to begin with purging away all that holds us back. It’s hard to come face-to-face with our mortality, with who we are right now, with all our sins and imperfections—and trust God to enter into that mess and transform it into something beautiful. It seems quite risky to let God have control. It’s hard to admit that we’ve looked to things other than God to define who we are, and to make a conscious choice to detach from those things so that we can connect to God. But we have no choice but to do this if we would have our eyes opened and our hearts illuminated and experience deeper union with God.

We must allow God to burn away everything that blocks us from having a deeper relationship with Him, and there’s no getting around the fact that the process might be difficult and messy. We’ll have to confront the good, the bad, and the ugly in our life, and there may be some pain involved in burning away the bad and the ugly in us. I think ultimately, what makes purgation hard for me, and I suspect for all of us, is to believe that when the process is done there is still something left worth redeeming. But I suppose that is where we must trust the wisdom of John of the Cross who know doubt spoke based on his own experience. God assures us that the flames will not consume the core of who we are, but will rather purge away the impurities so that what is left behind is the truest expression of who we really are—defined by a deeper loving union with our God. And I don’t know about you, but that’s what I long for; to me it’s worth the risk to be set free to become the person that God has created me to be.

So, as you receive the Ashes this year, I pray that you will let them linger and do their transforming work in your life. Don’t rush to “wash them away”; let them penetrate you to your core. Let God burn away all that is in you that is not of God, and open your eyes and illuminate your heart that you may know Him more intimately. Spend time pondering what it meant for Christ to die for us, and what it means to die to yourself during the season of Lent, so that come Easter morning you will experience the significance of the resurrection as you never have before. AMEN and thanks be God!

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