Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ashes to Ashes

I love "Sunday's Palms are Wednesday's Ashes" by Rae E. Whitney for a lot of reasons. It happens to be set to my favorite tune, but more than that, it perfectly expresses Ash Wednesday and, in many ways, Lent as a whole. It mirrors confessional prayers from Eucharist liturgies, but despite focusing on our failings, it always turns to forgiveness and hope.

Sunday's palms are Wednesday's ashes
As another Lent begins;
Thus we kneel before our Maker
In contrition for our sins.
We have marred baptismal pledges,
In rebellion, gone astray;
Now, returning, seek forgiveness;
Grant us pardon, Lord, this day!

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

We wave the fronds high and shout for joy. We sing loud hosannas and praise the King. If we did not cry out, the stones would do so in our place.

But Sunday's palms are Wednesday's ashes. The week that begins in a triumphal entry ends in darkness, a darkness that would become light, but a necessary darkness all the same.

We have marred baptismal pledges. Baptism is our covenant with God, and our baptismal pledges are the constant current through our lives as God's children. We made them -- or they were made for us -- at our baptism, and we renew them again and again. We renew them in confirmation, in joining new congregations, and every time someone else is baptized or joins the church. We make these pledges as individuals, and we make them as the Body.

But we don't constantly renew our vows just to remind ourselves that we made them. We renew them -- as individuals and as the Body -- because we mar them as individuals, and we mar them as the Body. So we return and confess to our God who is merciful, to our God who grants pardon to those who seek forgiveness. And we renew the covenant.

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me."

We have failed to love our neighbors,
Their offences to forgive,
Have not listened to their troubles,
Nor have cared just how they live;
We are jealous, proud, impatient,
Loving overmuch our things;
May the yielding of our failings
Be our Lenten offerings.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

"Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy." -- United Methodist Hymnal Service of Word & Table II

All these things are interconnected. In not loving our neighbors, in not forgiving them, in not listening to them, in not caring how they live, we fail to hear the cry of the needy, we fail to accept God's gift of love, we break God's law, and we fail to love God fully and completely as we are called to do. The first commandment is to love God, and the second is like it: to love one another as we love ourselves.

This is what the giving up tradition of Lent is about: yielding our failings. In Lent we turn over the parts of ourselves that oppose love of neighbor and love of God. We yield our failings before the LORD, and with God's help we make room for something new.

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me."

We are hasty to judge others,
Blind to proof of human need;
And our lack of understanding
Demonstrates our inner greed;
We have wasted earth's resources;
Want and suffering we've ignored;
Come and cleanse us, then restore us;
Make new hearts within us, Lord!

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

We turn our failings over to God. We present before him our judgment, our lack of empathy, our greed, our self-centeredness, our determination that we are right, our inflexibility. We confess how much we have failed in stewardship, in love, in providing for each other. Then we call out to the LORD for cleansing.

Lent is the season of cleansing, of making all things new. It is a season of restoration. We have wandered, and God is calling us home. We come home, we yield our failings, we are cleansed, and we are restored. The Service of Word & Table II confessional prayer ends with,"Forgive us, we pray, and free us for joyful obedience through Jesus Christ our Lord." When God forgives us, God also frees us, but we are not only freed from but also for. We are freed for joyful obedience, to keep our baptismal pledges, to live as God's children in the world.

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me."

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