Coming to Terms With God
Ash Wednesday Reflection
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Time and change are each the other’s measure. A life span may be two millennia for a sequoia tree or a day for a mayfly. But it is still one life. A generation among bacteria can last as little as 10 minutes, and for human beings, 28 years. It would take a well-fed bacterial colony only 14 days to go through as many generations as has humanity. Yet it is only each new generation that we have the chance to evolve, to shake again the genetic dice box and test any resulting mutations against the challenges of life. Ash Wednesday is an inelegant reminder that ours is one life and therefore precious.
Ash Wednesday serves as a lens to see our present from the finish line. Emily Dickinson takes on a similar perspective in her poem “Because I could not stop for Death.”
Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me.
The speaker of the poem narrates how death took her, in a courtly manner, in a carriage where she, death and immortality rode together.
On Ash Wednesdays, the church offers a space that may be larger than a carriage to contemplate one’s present from the finish line. And we do so in the company of fellow believers. We do so under the loving eyes of God, in the presence of a company of redeemed sinners on their Godward journey. Ashes are a symbolic reminder that we confess our sins in earnest repentance and allow ourselves to be cleansed by the Holy Spirit.
Call to God
Why does the church create such a space for this experience and carry on this holy ritual all over the world in which Christians unabashedly adorn their forehead with ashes? Is Ash Wednesday the only special day set apart for repentance?
Repentance is a call to God.: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).
Turning to God is a daily cleansing experience by the Holy Spirit. In the Repentance of Believers, sermon 14, John Wesley says, “By repentance we feel the sin remaining in our hearts, and cleaving to our words and actions: by faith, we receive the power of God in Christ, purifying our hearts, and cleansing our hands.” Wesley believes that for our “continuance and growth in grace,” repentance and faith are needed for our daily walk.
Call to grace
Being able to see God in one another’s face and in one’s own face needs daily grace. The interior awareness of seeing God in one another and in one’s self comes through tenderly caring for the image of God imprinted in our being. Let us fiercely protect the image of God in us from anything that disfigures that.
Today is an opportune day to fit us with the lens of ashes to see time in the light of eternity, our mortal being in the light of our own ashes and dust, sin in the light of grace. It is time to see once again Jesus following God’s call to be bearer of the sins of the world, personal and systemic. It is in this memory, in this call, the story of the church is being built, day by day, memory by memory.
Mending, stitching and cleansing God, mend us daily. Stitch us at the seams that come apart from you. Cleanse us back into the likeness of your image from all that mars our being. We are made to be your signature pieces. Create a new heart and new vision to see your image in each of us today throughout this Lenten season and all the days of our lives. Amen.
Glory E. Dharmaraj, Ph.D., is director of spiritual formation and mission theology for the Women’s Division.