"Tonight we will come and have the ashes of last year’s celebratory palms burned to symbolize the joy that is departed and the suffering that will ensue imposed on our foreheads, and on our lives. The ashes symbolize our confession that from ashes we have come and to ashes we will one day return. In humility, we surrender to this Lenten season and we journey with Christ in his suffering all the way to the cross. This is lent. It is not about chocolate or beads or fish on Fridays, it is about suffering.
Suffering’s not that difficult, I’ve actually got suffering down quite well, thank you – you may say. And I grant you, this world offers its unfair share of hardships under which we all labor, but in choosing to suffer alongside Christ, we often choose to deprive ourselves of something – you know the routine. We give up something and pretend the loss of caffeine or alcohol or television is actual suffering.
But choosing to suffer alongside Christ as we journey to the Christ means choosing to give up something else if we reflect closely. Suffering requires giving up our pride. Suffering requires admitting our sin. And that may be the hardest sacrifice we make: admitting we are wrong and giving up our sin.
At the front of the pews is a pile of leaves. Deadened by the winter winds and cold, these once green leaves have dried and fallen from their life source. They were found lying beneath their origin. And so does our sin cripple and diminish us until we are crusty, dull colored replicas of what we originally were created to be. We will each take a leaf.
And then we will bring that leaf to the front table. We will write our sin in permanent marker on it. We will acknowledge it in our lives and then we get rid of it. We will take the dead leaf with our sin written on it and we will crumple it into the bowl. For just as leaves die and fall from their source, so does their decomposition eventually nourish the tree to bring new life.
We choose a sin. We give it a name and then we give it away. We crumple it and we choose to walk away. And though sin is dangerous and lures us back time and time again, for this time, we acknowledge our weakness and we walk away. We humble ourselves, confess our sin and choose to walk with Christ to the cross where indeed, soon enough, new life will rise again.
Last night, before we received the ashes, we each took a dried up leaf, confessed a sin by writing it on the leaf in permanent marker, and crumbled it in our palms letting it fall into a clear bowl set on a black-clothed table underneath the cross. I was the first to go forward after giving the above introduction. I was startled by how loud the leaves crunched in the silent sanctuary with all eyes on my back. Did they wonder what I wrote? Were they guessing, judging me, estimating my confession? Crunch, crackle. The dismantled leaf tumbled into the empty bowl. I wiped my hands on my jeans and returned to my seat, a little overwhelmed. How would I move from the symbolic decomposition of my sin-filled leaf to the true repentance and turning from sin in my own life? I sat down and exhaled.
It took a second, as most communal activities do, and then people crowded patiently into line, anxious for their leaf, ready to confess their chosen sin and let it go. Old women, who couldn't walk by themselves, scuffled up front with their dead leaves. Youth, always quick to participate and bright enough to grasp the symbolism, picked up the markers resolutely. Those who would criticize even doing a "catholic" service wrote on the leaves. Pristine business partners crumpled the dead leaves to dust between their manicured hands. Mothers and daughters, the sick and the well, all lined up for the leaves, and most even lined up for the ashes.
After the service, I picked up the bowl of broken leaves to dispose of them. It was all I could do to keep from spying into the dusty remains to piece together leaf fragments and sin confessed. We are forever voyeurs, fascinated by evil. I didn't, though. I sighed knowing my own sin was enough to keep me busy and dumped the leaves into a trash bag.
Ash Wednesday. From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. 39 days to go.