© 2022 Evan D. Garner
Today, we do the most un-Episcopal of things in the most Episcopal way: we have an altar call. This is the only day of the year when the congregation is invited to come up to the altar twice. First, we come to receive ashes. Then, we come back to receive Communion. That might not feel much like the altar calls we associate with evangelical churches, where preachers lay on thick the message of sin and guilt and shame before encouraging penitent sinners to come forward and give their lives back to Christ. But, if you think about it, isn’t that what we do today? First, we are reminded of our mortality, and then we are beckoned to come forward and receive God’s mercy. We just don’t do it with all that yelling and crying and pressure.
Some of us love Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent. Others feel beaten up by them. I wonder why. I suspect that part of the reason I love Lent so much is that deep down I know that I need to be knocked off my high horse every once in a while. I have the privilege of riding through this world mostly immune from the struggles, hardships, and discriminations that others feel. Lots of people have shame upon shame heaped on top of them. They are ostracized by religious types—even by family and friends—who “don’t approve of what they have been doing” and “have decided to cut off communication until they repent and return to the Lord.” Others just seem to get life’s short straw over and over again, and they can’t help but wonder why bad things keep happening to them. The last thing anyone like that needs is for the church to set aside a day—let alone an entire liturgical season—to remind them of their brokenness.
The rest of us, however, are more likely to need a little help encountering our limitations and moral failings. To those of us who are largely shielded from the hardships and criticisms of others, the world offers a different trap. We become so accustomed to being treated as if we have all our ducks in a row that we begin to worry that, if the truth ever got out, everything would fall apart. We begin to believe that we are only loved because we are good enough to deserve that love, and that’s a dangerous lie to build a life on. By offering us a safe dose of humanity’s universal brokenness, Ash Wednesday gives us a tiny reminder that it’s ok to be imperfect because God loves us anyway.
I wish the church did a better job of presenting that same message of hopefulness to those for whom the Litany of Penitence is an all-too-familiar recitation of their wrongs. What would Ash Wednesday be like if we paid as much attention to lifting up those who are bent over under the weight of their guilt as we do to setting aside one day when the high and mighty get a glimpse of their own brokenness? Don’t we need both? Isn’t that what Ash Wednesday is really about? As Christians, don’t we believe that all human beings are both totally sinful and totally loved? Isn’t that the source of our greatest hope—that we can be honest about ourselves and also know that we are loved by God just the way we are?
Our liturgy, when it is done right, embodies both of those truths, which normally do not inhabit the same space, the same thought, the same being. We come first to the altar to remember that we are dust—that we are mortal and fragile and that there is nothing we can do to prevent our inevitable return to the earth from which we came. But then we come back to the altar to remember that we are redeemed—that God loves us enough to die for us not because we deserve it but precisely because we don’t—because we are just dust. We encounter both of those things today—our emptiness and God’s perfecting love—and our hope lies in the intersection of the two.
What do you need to hear God say to you today? If the everyone keeps telling you that your life must be wonderful because they think you have it all figured out, come up to the altar and let God say to you that it’s ok if things aren’t as good as they seem. God doesn’t love you because you’re perfect. God loves you even though you’re nothing but a bunch of dust. And if you’ve heard nothing from the world but struggle, rejection, and failure, come up and hear something else. Hear God say that you are made in God’s image, that you are loved just as you are, and that God has already redeemed you.
Because of Jesus Christ, both of those things are true. Because of Jesus, we find our hope right here, where our honesty and God’s love meet.