Standing in the Ashes
In the aftermath of our United Methodist General Conference and in the political corruption and chaos in our nation, it feels like we are standing in the ashes of some of our highest hopes and noblest ideals. Preparing for Ash Wednesday, my thoughts returned to Easter Earthquake. I share the Ash Wednesday meditation in the hope that it will help you prepare for the formative days of Lent.
Beginning Where our Journeys End
Our Lenten journey begins is the place where all our journeys end: the cold, hard, stony silence of a tomb. We begin in Joseph’s tomb; the place where Jesus’ body was laid to rest.
My favorite place in the Washington National Cathedral is the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea. Deep below the nave, the chapel is formed by the massive piers that support the Gloria in Excelsis tower that rises 300 feet above the highest point of land in the District of Columbia. Twelve descending steps create the feeling of descending into the tomb while sensing the full weight and glory of the tower above.
Behind the altar, a mural by Jan Henrik De Rosen depicts Joseph leading the procession to the tomb. All the heads are shrouded or bowed except for one young man who helps carry the body and looks out intently toward the congregation. Looking into his eyes, I often wonder what he is saying to or asking of us.
On Ash Wednesday, the young man in the mural seems to be reminding me that we all make this journey. It’s the ruthlessly honest word that is spoken as the ashes are placed on our foreheads, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Nothing is quieter than death; nothing more silent than a grave. Lent leads us into that silence. The church invites us to break away from the non-stop chatter of our culture in order to be still enough, long enough to hear the voice of God…Lent begins at the tomb where we acknowledge our dusty humanity and confess our sin. With the guilt-ridden David in Psalm 51, we name our need for God’s mercy, forgiveness and cleansing. With the church throughout the ages, we cry out:
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
The powerful paradox of Lent is that we make our way to the tomb in the assurance of resurrection. We name our sin and acknowledge our need in the assurance of God’s love and grace. Paul expressed that paradox when he wrote:
“…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.” (2 Corinthians 6:9-10)
We live in the paradox of Ash Wednesday, wearing the ashes of our mortality in the hope of resurrection.
Like the earthquake in the gospel (Matthew 28:2), a 5.8-magnitude earthquake shook Washington, D.C., on August 23, 2011. As the energy from the quake traveled upward, it shook the highest and most slender elements of the Gloria in Excelsis tower. Delicate pinnacles, each weighing thousands of pounds, burst apart from the seismic force unleashed in less than a minute. Repairs will take more than a decade at an estimated cost of $22 million.
But the tower still stands with its foundation deep in the walls of St. Joseph’s chapel. Standing firmly in the place of death, we know the hope and promise of the glory that rises above us.
(Reprinted from Easter Earthquake: How Resurrection Shakes Our World by James A. Harnish. Copyright © 2017. Used by permission of Upper Room Books. For more information, visit bookstore.upperroom.org.)
May we face the ashes of our sin, our disobedience and death in the hope of new life in the resurrection.
Grace and peace,