On Ash Wednesday the Christian world begins its wilderness journey with Christ in commemoration of his forty days in the desert. At my church, the Sanctuary is quiet as we come forward in long, solemn lines to receive the ashes. Before me, I hear the ministers whisper about how we are all made of dust and must therefore return to dust – exhorting us to repent and believe what the Gospels have taught us. I pray the prayer of contrition, confess my sins before God. I stand with the rest, my forehead bare, waiting. Knowing that the season of Lent begins in that moment, when the minister’s finger draws the midnight-black cross on my skin, marking me as a follower of Jesus, as one who stands in solidarity with the Son of Man in his long suffering, his work for human-kind, and his violent death on a rough piece of wood. In addition to the imposition of the ashes, we are to think and pray and choose something to give up, or some discipline to adopt to mark the forty-day journey through the wilderness.
If you make a sacrifice, it must be meaningful. It must be something that comes between you and Christ. Something that ties you to this world and keeps you from focusing on Kingdom-business. Some give up meat. Some give up liquor. Some give up sex. Some give up coffee, or cigarettes, or chocolate. Somehow, I cannot imagine coming to God’s altar and laying down coffee or cookies. It must be meaningful. It must be something that I can hardly bear to part with, something without which I cannot imagine my life.
But honestly, there is nothing I have or want that seems good enough. I wait with the others and I remember how I stood before the church and read the words of the Fifty-first Psalm earlier in the evening. There is no acceptable sacrifice except hearts that are broken, and spirits that are crushed. God wants to make all things new. He wants to enter empty vessels and fill them. I receive the Mark of Christ, the Body and the Blood of Christ, and then I go to the altar and I pray in the words of the Psalmist from so long ago –
Create in me a clean heart, O God; renew a steadfast spirit within me… Restore me to the joy of your salvation, and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Hide your face from my sins and do not count them against me. Create in me a clean heart.
I came away feeling emptied, ready for whatever the journey brings. I am here, Lord; we can walk together.
Receiving The Mark
Stark and acrid
The bitter smell of ashes
I feel the oil and grit against my skin on the tip of his finger
“Remember – all are from dust and to dust all return.
Repent, and believe the Gospel.”
For a short while I carry the cross
I am branded
Everyone can see my sorrow
In solidarity with Christ, I embark upon my own Wilderness Road
Forty days – a drop of water in the deep sea.
A narrow path
through the heart of the wood
the air is dark and close
if there are temptations they do not matter
nothing can touch me – nothing can reach me.
I am armored
not by belief -- not by faith
but by my pain and my scars and my shame
I am set apart, distanced from the world
What will you give up? they ask
Chocolate – coffee – wine
But it is no hardship to give
Harder to receive
To receive love
To receive warmth
To receive forgiveness
Even from God
Especially from God.
He whispers in the darkness
There is no sacrifice you can give me
Nothing you have that I want
Instead receive –
Receive my love
Receive my word
Receive my Spirit
But how can I take what you give?
I am not worth this
Can never be what you want
Can never be innocent
Can never be worthy.
Create in me a clean heart O God
The words rolled off my tongue
But rooted themselves in my soul
The only sacrifice that is worthy
Is my broken spirit
Take it, then
Make of it what you will
Until you make me new
Make all things new –
I will walk this Wilderness Road
Branded -- wearing my sorrow on my skin
Carrying the cross.