There is something I enjoy about shredding paper. I know, that might sound funny or little odd. I don’t know whether it’s the repetitive action leading to a sense of accomplishment when a pile of paper is gone, or what exactly it is about this activity that I enjoy.
But I think there may also be something deeper than just shredding old documents going on here. You see, sometimes when I’m shredding papers I come across items from the past – old bills from the school my kids used to attend, or more recently, I was shredding old checks from before I got married this past May, checks that only had my name on them. In these moments I found myself not only letting go of those papers, but letting the memories (good ones mostly from my kid’s old school) or the acknowledgment of change (another good memory, in this case getting married), become more deeply integrated into me and my personal history. There were times in the past where documents were connected to a painful divorce, or to years that were challenging in other ways, too.
I think that we as humans need rituals to mark transitions – be it for birth and death, relationships beginning or ending – maybe for almost everything we do. We need outward and visible signs that help our hearts and minds to see and acknowledge and integrate the changes taking place.
Ash Weds is a deep and ancient ritual that marks an important point on the map of our spiritual journeys each year, and our entrance into the season of Lent – Lent being a season marked by us remembering God’s loving desire to change us – for the better! God’s desire to help us turn from all the things that separate us from God, be it our egos and human desire to be in control or our out-of-control schedules that we allow to become so busy that sometimes there isn’t even room to be listening, waiting, watching for the precious ways that God is most surely arriving, showing up, a very present help in times of trouble and a comfort in the times of storm, and an amplifier of joy when the sailing is smooth.
So, we mark ashes on our foreheads to remember that we came from dust and to dust we shall return. We put on this outward sign to allow ourselves to be inwardly reminded of God’s grace – as a way to help us integrate the changes God is seeking to bring about in us. We say, “accomplish in us, oh God, the work of your salvation.” Please God, lend us your strength through the power of your Christ so that we might be made new people, fashioned and molded in every parts of our beings so as to give praise to you. Help us let go of guilt and fear and anger and put on the armor of light so that others who meet us will also come to know of your love and grace and goodness. Let these changes come now by the power of your resurrection work through Christ, and let them come deeply!
Jesus in our gospel lesson today reminds us to be cautious, careful that our outward actions are not done for the sake of how they look for others. Are we praying, fasting, almsgiving (that is, giving to those in need)? These are excellent practices for people of faith - essential practices even – but don’t do them because of how others will perceive you or your actions. Instead, let my actions of faith be centered in that deep work of letting God in Christ – who knows my inner heart and mind completely – let that deep work be centered in and for the sake of God in Christ who makes our life journey, our faith journeys, possible.
We make a small sign of the cross with ashes to reflect a much larger and more profound invitation that is being offered to us again in this season of Lent – to allow God in Christ to refashion and remold us into instruments of peace and grace and love and justice. And that can include exploring and deepening our prayer lives – with the little daily prayer booklets we make available, or by attending the Wednesday evening Contemplative Prayer studies. That can include fasting – maybe for one person that is refraining from eating something so as to focus more on their life with God, while for another person that means fasting from anger, or judgmental thoughts. And may our almsgiving – our help for others - be re-visited in this Lenten season with intentionality; how we give of time, talents, and finances to help build the verdant world that God in Christ, who desires a new creation, is seeking to use our hearts and hands to make possible.
As our foreheads are marked with the small sign of the cross, we are invited to begin the shredding. To begin again to give to God all that has been, good, bad, or somewhere in between. To allow God to help us do the rejoicing work and the forgiving work – including of ourselves – that is needed in order to integrate who we were with who God in Christ is seeking to help us become.
Lent literally means “spring.” So, as we enter this springtime of the Church season, we look with expectation to where God in Christ is sowing new life, including in the shredded remains of what has been before. Amen.