As we settle into this second day of Lent, some might still find it ironic about the gospel reading for yesterday—to hear Jesus warn against disfiguring our faces when many of us are getting ready for the imposition of ashes. On the surface, it would seem that we are engaging in exactly the kind of grandstanding that Jesus is warning about. But when we have the ashes placed upon our foreheads, the purpose is to remind US that we are entering a penitential season, and that since we are ashes, it is important to live our lives in the most faithful way possible.
But also, Jesus spoke at a time when big shows of piety were often put to work for gain in social status or influence, because religious performance was something most people took for granted. And while many people nowadays may do the first part of that last sentence—putting on a show of their supposed religious affiliation, those numbers are getting smaller and smaller each year all across the West. For many of us, walking around all day yesterday with a sign of a cross on our foreheads makes us stand out in a different way in an ever-secularizing world.
It’s not about showing off. It IS about what you most treasure and proclaim in your life.
The late, beloved American poet Mary Oliver, in her poem “Sometimes,” offered seven linked poems together. Right at the fulcrum, at number 4, she offered these “Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.”
I am convinced that those are also the instructions for discipleship: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
Attention. Astonishment. Witness.
So let’s start with paying attention right now. Just where did those ashes come from that we had pressed into our brows? They came from the palms that we waved on Palm Sunday, ten months ago. They were once young fronds on a palm tree, and then we blessed them and waved them as we re-enacted Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem a week before his trial and crucifixion. Then they sat and dried out for almost a full year. Eventually the dried out remnants were collected, and then they were burned. A match was lit, and light and heat were released from the gases that remained in the palms from the materials they had absorbed from the ground during their life on the tree. They were then ground up, and mixed with the same chrism that we use when we anoint people at their baptisms and at their confirmations. Oil and ashes. Light and heat. And a human touch to press them onto our foreheads—one soul to another.
So what is the astonishing thing about this? We are reminded that we came from the dust and we return to the dust. That sounds dreadful—until you consider that the ash and dust that we are marked with contains atoms which resonate in you, me, everyone and everything, everywhere. The elements that make up that dust were in that palm frond and in that tree and in its roots, but have also been here all along in the billions of years since the Earth’s creation. And those elements were deposited here and fused together to create this beautiful planet, born from the explosions of stars halfway across the galaxy. As Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust….” That is indeed astonishing, and it reminds us that here at the start of Lent we are called to recognize the acknowledge the way that this common heritage makes us all one. Especially as the drums of war beat right now across eastern Europe in Ukraine, what could be more astonishing than that bold statement of fact? We are all dust, and we are therefore all one with each other and with all that is.
And then, that mark on our foreheads is part of us telling about it. We are not called to come to church merely to feed ourselves or tend to our own needs. We are called to TELL the world about what we have encountered in Jesus. We are called to let that black smudge on our foreheads be not just an acknowledgement of our finitude, our own mortality, but our own encounter with the love of God as it became human and mortal, just like us, to show us how to live a fully human life—one of love and concern for others, and faithfulness to our God.
This is our chance to repent. I know that word makes many of us wince and edge away. So let’s try to rephrase it. This is our chance to re-center ourselves, not just for forty days but for each moment.
Lent calls us to attention, astonishment, and witness. Lent calls us to see the potential rather than the dreariness and horror of pandemic and now war, to look for the beauty and unity among ourselves and all God’s sparkling mysterious creation placed here for our support and care. Lent calls us to proclaim, to tell, to be truthful and reliable in our witness to God’s love by embodying God’s love. I don’t know about you, but I have never needed that kind of Lent more than right now. A Life-giving Lent. A Lent of slowing down and inviting ourselves to wonder and gratitude. A Lent that calls us to stand for right and honor and compassion no matter what the price tag. Lent calls us not to more suffering and uncertainty, but to holiness, which is ALWAYS within our range of choices.
Lent is not a season to be endured, but a gift of insight into what we really should treasure. It is in the everyday world that we live, and we need to make our faith not just a Sunday faith or a Lenten discipline but a part of a living and breathing. Some call this mindfulness, and it is such a wonderful concept.
Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. And have a truly transformative Lent.
Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.