I find it interesting that most churches observing Ash Wednesday use ashes gathered from burning the previous year's Palm Sunday leaves. These ashes mixed with oil form the cross-painting paste.
Truth be told, the first Ash Wednesday service I ever attended was more a comedy of errors than the practice of something sacred. Personally, I think liturgical churchgoers possess amazingly good motor skills and are strong multitaskers. The ability to juggle the bulletin, the Book of Common Prayer, the hymnal and the altar you have to pull out from beneath the pew in front of you and then push back at designated points in the service was definitely out of this PresbyBaptiCostal girl's comfort zone.
I have since read that, at this service, the minister--through song, sermon and prayer--calls people to repentance. However, I must confess that I was so distracted, trying to keep one step ahead of the next step, that I don't remember a word he said.
But I do remember words he spoke as he painted the cross-shaped ashes on my forehead: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
The reason these words had such an effect on me was because of the frail, elderly couple sitting in front of me. They “preached” me a crystal-clear sermon about just how quickly all of us "return to dust," and how we are called to live in the meantime.
When it was time to go down front to receive communion and have the ashes painted on my forehead, I waited at the end of this elderly couple's row to let them step in front of me. All the way out the pew and up the aisle, the husband took halting, shuffled steps, which seemed possible only by the support of his wife's small arm around him.
I wondered how he would ever manage to kneel and get back up but, with her help, he did. I more heard than saw him take the bread and cup, because every breath was labored. They lingered there...at the altar...together...for several moments.
As I watched them laboriously walk back down the aisle and into their pew, I wondered what sort of devotion was required to get one’s self and one’s frail husband dressed and into the car…one’s self and one’s frail husband out of the car and into the church…one’s self and one’s frail husband up the aisle to painstakingly kneel at an altar to take the bread and cup and to get back up again.
Watching the two of them slowly walk back down that aisle, with the newly painted crosses on their foreheads, made me cry...and I bowed my head to hide those tears.
This church's Book of Common Prayer lay open in my lap, and I noticed tiny gray spots on its pages. I touched one, and it smudged. Then, I saw one of those "spots" drifting down and landing on the page, and realized these spots were the ashes flaking off the cross on my forehead.
As I tried to brush them off without smudging the page, the Holy Spirit spoke deeply into my soul, “That’s where such a determined devotion begins… in the flaking off…. of selfish desires…. of "the old you.”
And, Jesus' cross...the forgiveness and power found there...is the only place... the only way... such life-saving “flaking off” can ever begin and can ever endure.
So, in spite of how clumsy and vulnerable that new kind of worship service made me feel, Jesus met me there and taught me a living parable.
In his book, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," C. S. Lewis paints a beautiful picture of this "flaking off." One of the characters, Eustace, through pride, self-pity and greed, has acted in ways that have caused him to be "turned into a dragon." Once the exciting newness of being a dragon wears off, Eustace is miserable and very sorry for how he has treated everyone. Listen to what happens:
"I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming toward me...It told me to follow...And I knew I had to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me to...a garden. In the middle of it was a well, which was more like a very big round bath...and I thought,
'If I could get in there and bathe, it would ease the pain in my leg' (from the jeweled bracelet that had become more like a shackle).
But the lion told me I must undress first....so I started scratching, and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then, I scratched a little deeper,...and my whole skin started peeling off beautifully...as if I was a banana...In a minute or two, I just stepped out of it. I could see it laying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bath.
But, just as I was going to put my feet into the water, I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkly and scaly just as they had been before....So I scratched and tore again and (it) peeled off beautifully again and out I stepped...and went down to the well for my bath. And exactly the same thing happened again, and I thought, 'Oh, dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off?'...
Then the lion said, 'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay down and let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the old stuff peel off....
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off...And there I was as smooth and as soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me--I didn't like that very much for I was very tender now that I had no skin on--and he threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that, it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing, I found that all the pain had gone....
After a bit, the lion took me out and dressed me...in new clothes....
And then, suddenly, I was back here...
Then Eustace asked, 'What do you think it was?'
And Edmund answered, 'I think you've seen Aslan.'....
Now, it would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that from that time forth Eustace was a different boy. But, to be strictly accurate, he (only) began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But...the cure had begun."
"Before the Passover celebration,
Jesus knew his hour had come to leave this world
and return to his Father.
He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth,
and now he loved them to the very end....
Jesus knew the Father had given him authority over everything
and that he had come from God and would return to God.
So he got up from the table, took off his robe,
wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin.
Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet,
drying them with the towel he had around him.
When Jesus came to Simon Peter,
Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You don’t understand now what I am doing,
but someday you will.”
“No,” Peter protested, “you will never ever wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.”
(John 13:1-8, NLT)
Oh, Christ, during these next 40 days
May I see you like never before.
Shine your Love and Light on those places
In me that need to flaked off...
Even scraped off...by the Lion of Judah.
Help me to desire what You long for me to desire.
40 days from now, may I love You more than I do today.