Ashes 1: Built up...

And so another Lenten season begins...

Psalm 147:1-11

1    How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.

2   The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.

3   He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.

4   He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names.

5   Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.

6   The Lord lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground.

7   Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre.

8   He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills.

9   He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.

10  His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;

11  but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.

I went to St. James Cathedral for midday mass today. It's Ash Wednesday after all. It was my first time back to church in a while. I did not grow up in a liturgical tradition, and there are certainly still aspects of "high church" that I find odd or unneccessary. However, everything about the service this morning fit well with what's been on my mind.

Lent begins again today. Forty days of intentionality, of wrestling, of waiting. Apart from blogging on a semi-regular basis (read: at least every other day), I'm not sure what, if anything, I am going to add to or take away from my life. I've thought about limiting my time in front of the computer or the television, but given my past experiences with such attempts, that would probably be an exercise in futility and self-induced shame. And so, for now, I will read, and I will write.

All of us are broken. All of us have broken.

The Rev. Milton Williams, Interim Dean of St. James, said this phrase during his homily this morning, and despite (or because of) its simplicity, it's stuck in my head. The nature of the world is this odd paradox between brokenness and beauty. The experience of being broken and of causing brokenness is one universal to every human ever to have lived. We all know what it feels like. Even on my train ride down to the cathedral — during which I was forced to sit there quietly having forgotten both my headphones and my Kindle — I heard one young man share his experience of being denied credit for his work by a fellow photographer. Sure, he spoke of it with a smile on his face, but there was a grit to his voice, something that said, "This really hurt me, and I don't know what to do about it."

Rev. Williams said something else during the service: "Ash is about saying 'I'm sorry'... Ash is about making things right." Isn't that what we're told the point of Lent is: a journey towards repentance and reconciliation made tangible, palpable, in the Passion of Jesus? What better example of brokenness than Jesus torn apart on the cross? What better sign of restoration than the Resurrection?

The Lord builds up Jerusalem; He gathers the outcasts of Israel

The ashes on my forehead like those of countless others today, as I've heard, come from the palm leaves from last year. Dried up and burned down, the connect us to the past just as this year's leaves will connect us to the future. But that's it. Burned up, dried up leaves. Nothing magical. They are but a shell of what they once were: vibrant, green, and full of life. Even in their current state, these ashes remind us of God's promise to build up, for you can't build up something that is already in a whole, unbroken state. You build up that which is broken, fallen, downtrodden. That is God's promise for us today and everyday: to build us up from our brokenness, to gather us back into the communities from whence we came. The promise of Ash Wednesday is one of restoration and reconciliation.

So if you're like me and you have ashes in the sign of a hopefully discernible cross on your forehead (as Rev. Williams hoped for this morning), don't wipe them off, not until tonight. Keep them there. Let them get messy as the day goes on. And when you look in the mirror, be reminded of the promise today brings — the promise of hope, of restoration and reconciliation, of being built up and gathered in.

**If you want to follow along with the devotional lectionary I'll be using for this series, you can find it here via Pittsburgh Theological Seminary**