Tag Archives: Ash Wednesday

Hump Day Hymns – Lent edition: The Glory of These Forty Days

Hymnal

The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by whom all things were made, 
Himself has fasted and has prayed.

Alone and fasting, Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came 
The steeds and chariots of flame.

So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Delivered from the lion’s might;
And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
The heralds of Messiah’s name.

Then grant that we like him be true,
Consumed in fast and prayer with You;
Our spirits strengthen with Your grace,
And give us joy to see your face.
-Gregory the Great (540-604), Trans. Maurice F. Bell (1862-1947)

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”

The gritty ash grinds into my forehead as one of the elders dips her thumb into the dish full of ash which is as dark as my sin, and marks a cross into my forehead.

As she marks the cross, she looks me in the eye while reciting those haunting words reminding me of my mortality, of my brokenness, of my sin, of who I am and who God is.

Today, Lent begins. Lent is a season that is filled with prayer, repentance, and change. It is a season when it is common to give something up, or to take something on. We do this in order that we can identify with the sufferings of Christ, and in doing so, we can enter into a deeper and closer relationship with the divine. This causes Lent to, even further, be a somber season filled with suffering, and self-denial. While I appreciate Lent and other melancholy seasons, this hymn invites me — invites us — to nuance the way in which we view and experience Lent.

I have never before heard the forty days of Lent used in the same sentence as “glory” and describing the observation of Lent as a “celebration.”

What I have often forgotten in my own observance of Lent, is that the purpose of this season is to bring us into deeper relationship with the divine, and that God brings joy — a joy which is deeper and richer than simply happiness.

The wonderful thing about this particular hymn, is that it links fasting and praying with joy, glory, and celebration. Suffering is not an end, it is only beneficial insofar as it brings us into a closer relationship with God and helps us to experience the joy and glory of God with fresh eyes of the heart.

***

I have been trying to figure out how I am going to observe Lent this year. I have found that giving up meat, giving up dairy, or something of the like does not bring me to a place where I can experience the joy and glory of God with new eyes and a renewed spirit. As often happens, my life goes on as normal only without meat, without dairy, or whatever the case may be.

Truthfully, I don’t need to give up meat or dairy in order to experience suffering. Suffering is all around me, all around us. My ministry is exceptionally taxing, I continue to struggle with discerning God’s calling on my life. There are shootings all around me on a regular basis, some of which reach closely to members of my congregation. I have had loved ones die, many unexpectedly and early. Daily, I see and interact with people who sleep under bridges and hidden away in parks and who try desperately to live through the frozen night to see another day. Compared to all of this, giving up meat for forty days does not seem to be that much of an experience of suffering.

What I need is not something to make me feel melancholy, I live that way throughout all of the other seasons, what I need is not something to make me experience suffering, that is something which is lived and experienced throughout all of the other seasons. What I need is this:

Our spirits strengthen with Your grace,
And give us joy to see Your face.

This year, for Lent, I will not be giving anything up. Fasting is good, it is something which, rightly practiced, can refocus our lives and renew our spirits. I will continue in my typical practice of fasting, but I will not fast from anything new. I am going to celebrate Lent by seeking the joys and glory of God even amidst the brokenness and of the world, and allow that experience of glory to purify my heart, my soul, and my life.. After all, this is what Lent is about: turning us back toward God in preparation for the new life of the resurrection.

This year, then, as the grass greens, the bare and dead-looking trees bud new life, and as the flowers send up shoots, may my heart also spring fresh shoots of new life and a new commitment to following the triune God.

“Remember, you are dust…”

I’ve always enjoyed Ash Wednesday services.  I enjoy them not because they make me happy, but because they are powerful.  The reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will return is an important reminder.  The feeling of the grit of the ash on my forehead helps me to remember the grit of my sin.  I enjoy Ash Wednesday services because they help me to refocus my life on God, and it helps me to re-center my existance on God, and God’s transforming work.

I have participated in the imposition of the ashes many times before.  Hearing the words “Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is always a very sobering experience.  Saying the words wrenches my heart.  But Ash Wednesday this year, the first Ash Wednesday as the pastor of my church, I had an experience that almost moved me to tears: I looked a three year old girl in the eyes and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  The fact of the matter is that she is dust, and she will return to dust, just as I am and I will also. For some reason, it is much more powerful when I say it to a child.

I think about how many years they have ahead of them, how many great things they may do.  It is sobering to think about mortality before their life really even began.  I suppose, though, that that is the point of Ash Wednesday. That it is not about us — it is about God.  We can not do anything lasting.  I suppose that is a bit of what Qoheleth was thinking in the composition of Ecclesiastes.  The point is that God does the lasting work, and in understanding our mortality, we allow ourselves to be changed by God.

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and Lent is a time of repentence, prayer, transformation, and renewal. In order for this transformation and renewal to happen, we have to recenter ourselves on the order of the universe.  God is God, I am dust — and in response I will open myself to God’s transformational work so that I can face Easter a renewed person.