If you ask people what their favorite holiday in the Christian calendar is, usually they will say Christmas or Easter. There’s a reason we have “C&E” Christians who come out of the woodwork twice (or once) a year. Christmas and Easter are the two happiest days of the year. Hooray for the triumph of God!
Oddly enough, my favorite holiday is Ash Wednesday. If there is a nadir in the Christian calendar, this is it. It begins the season of Lent in a somber way. It opens the door to self reflection (theoretically, serious self reflection) in a way that no other Christian holiday does (with the possible exception of Black Friday).
I think what appeals to me most about this holiday is that it is all about the grit of life. There is no gloss. There are no platitudes. There are no excuses. The fact is we are all human beings, and human life is messy. It’s just who we are. To believe otherwise is to live in a fantasy world.
I like the “raw” feeling of Ash Wednesday. I look at my flesh and I see it for what it is: flesh. I look at the earth around me and see the dirt. I look past the light, and I see the shadow. It evokes the perfect emotional atmosphere to meditate on what it means to be human.
Years back, when I served a small congregation in Ladd, IL, we had a small group of young adults who gathered twice a month for spiritual nourishment. In our opening time we used to recite a liturgy together. Each season had its own, and I want to share the one we used for Lent.
I stole some of the text from Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings From the Northumbria Community before I modified it. We would sit in a circle with ashes and candles. We would pass the ashes from Ash Wednesday around and each make the mark of the cross on one’s neighbor’s right hand, until everyone had been marked. During the marking, the marker would say:
Remember, from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.
Then, in the same way, we would pass around a candle to light our neighbor’s candle, saying as we did so:
May the light of Christ shine in you always.
Then, together we would read:
Lord, help me now to unclutter my life,
to organize myself in the direction of simplicity.
Lord, teach me to listen to my heart;
teach me to welcome change instead of fearing it.
Lord, I give You these stirrings inside me,
I give You my discontent,
I give You my restlessness,
I gie You my doubt,
I give You my despair,
I give You all the longings I hold inside.
Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; to listen seriously and follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open door.
I love that liturgy. I think I may keep it close through out this upcoming Lent. Let us welcome Ash Wednesday with open hearts, and may we be all the better as human beings for it.