Only love will heal division. Trust the power of love born of death. Understanding comes in new ways. Look to the stars. Look to the earth. Look to the hearts of humanity. Taste life in all its fullness….Love guides and moves all that is. Under every pain is an ocean of love. This love births life. –Love
Today is Ash Wednesday. Not technically a “holy day of obligation” it is traditionally nonetheless a day that attracts Catholics in droves—to churches, to receive ‘drive by’ ashes, to have dirty ash smeared across their foreheads. The mark is often accompanied by one of two phrases: “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” or “you are from dust, and to dust you shall return.” I prefer the second phrase, although both convey something of the mystical meaning of this day made holy by the longing of the people of God. I know Catholics who almost never go to mass but show up on Ash Wednesday. It speaks to a knowing at the center of our hearts, that is affected by the symbolism of ashes and by communal memory. It speaks to the need to know the closeness of death, so that we might truly live.
During these Covid-times many things have been turned topsy-turvy, religious practice being one of them. This has already been a dying art, at least among my generation and younger. Increasingly secular or “spiritual but not religious” many of us don’t see the point in religious ritual or Sunday obligations. Yet with the pandemic, even those still adhering to these prescriptions haven’t been able to practice them. For a while, churches were shut down. Even now, my elderly friends are only tentatively going. Many masses and ash dispensing services are online. Old St. Pat’s in Chicago made “pick up kits” complete with ashes for parishioners to pick up and recreate the ritual at home.
The old ways were already dying, but the reality of our world today is pushing them even further into their grave. But the good news is—the gospel we are asked to be faithful to—is that the new comes, born from death through Sophia, the Holy Spirit of the Living God.
Who is She? And what does She have to teach us?
Our Jewish ancestors referred to her as Shekinah, or Ruah—the breath of God, the space in which God dwells. She is, as the quote above details, the “ocean of love” under every pain. She is the love that births life. She is love itself—born of death.
Ash Wednesday, at its heart, is not an obligation. It’s not another “should.” And these days it’s not even happening, at least not in the way we’re used to. The Holy Spirit is, if we let Her, leading us straight into the heart of what all this means—the mystery and Love at the center of so much that has been distorted into rote, mindless, often guilt-ridden monotony. Walking in step with sister death, She is bringing us into Life.
On Ash Wednesday, we feel the smear of dust, of ash, of death on our foreheads. We are told explicitly—you are close to death, with every breath you take. You are of the earth, and like all things of earth, you will die. Your life will become food for some new thing.
So many of us think this day is about shame or unworthiness, like the long season of Lent that follows. It’s not our fault—people in power have mistaught us that. That somehow it’s about becoming intimate with our un-worthiness, our sinfulness, to beat our breast and cower to the almighty ‘god.’ But that severely misses the point. Such misinterpretations are ‘sinful’ in the truest meaning of the word—missing the mark.
Ash Wednesday, and the entire season of Lent, is about preparation. Preparation to encounter death in all its fullness, to become intimate with it, as affectionate as a lover, so that we might fully enter into Life—to celebrate it, take great pleasure in it, to swim in the ocean of love under all things. We encounter death so that we might be born into the fullness of life. To be unafraid. To gain strength in the suffering, never to inflict more of it on ourselves or another. To grow the capacity to hold the great paradoxes of life within ourselves—death and life, dark and light, night and day, misery and hope, sorrow and joy. To be fully human, and whole.
Traditional religion, especially Catholicism, has so often gotten this desperately wrong. The faithful have been misled to focus on their own individual guilts and wrong-doings, instead of aligning their hearts with the greatest reality that the Christ came to embody—yes, suffering is part of life. Death will come. But there is a Love so much bigger and wilder and more glorious holding it all—holding YOU, and holding us all, together. Our entire existence is awash in this love, always and in all ways.
We actually see this Love and Life everywhere, every time we tune in to the rhythms of the natural world. Right now, I see it in the drifting of snow falling from the sky, blanketing an already white earth. It is sparkling, alight. I am aware, at my desk, at this moment, of my godkids and friends in Texas, moving in and out of having power and heat. I worry for them. I pray for them and my heart moves in longing to help them. I am angry that it is the poorest and most vulnerable of my brothers and sisters who will suffer the most from this mishandling of the grid and profit-mongering greed of a few companies, and at their head, a few rich men. And yet, as well, in this moment, I am aware that for the earth, here in the Midwest, this snow is good. This cold is nourishment—months from now it will be the water that allows the seeds deep in the ground to have what they need to grow. Seeds that unless there are enough days of deep cold, cannot sprout. I see that somehow, life comes from this cold, this freeze, this apparent landscape of no life at all.
You see—intimacy with death, as hard as this might be to accept—heightens our intimacy with life. It makes us sober—to who we are, to our limits, and to our great capacity for love.
That is what Ash Wednesday, and all of Lent is about. To remind us of who we are—from the body of the earth, creation itself. This truth at the center of us comes with glory and with utter humility. But not the kind of ‘humility’ that whips its own back for being wretched. The kind of humility that is not inflated or deflated but simply is—what we are—human. Creature. Connected. In celebration of and dependent on all of life. It allows us to take our place in the family of things, to not mislead ourselves that we can or should do it all, but to do what we are here to do wholeheartedly, well, and with joy.
Today, snowed in and pandemic cautious anyway, my husband and I won’t be going to any church. But we know that we ARE Church—we are the people of God. Today, we will anoint each other with ashes. We will remind each other we are dust, earth, and to earth we will return. We will invite in sister death, give her the reverence she is due. In her light, we will do our best, each day, to love each other into being, to honor life.