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Ash Wednesday and Hard Hearts

heart_stoneHere we are, another Ash Wednesday. This one comes so late, too. By this time last year Easter was clearly on the horizon, at the end of March. This year, we are just about to begin Lent.

Somehow, all I can think about is the dark of winter and Lent, and how light it will be starting next week. No, no, no… Something feels off about that.

It’s me that is off if I am honest; I don’t like change as much as I pretend to like it. Why can’t Lent always start in early or mid-February? My pretty, shiny stone heart likes it better that way! Insert pouting face here. I know that we got those ceramic hearts at mass this weekend… And I believe, as Fr. Jerry told us, that they are to remind us of God’s love, but my heart feels hard, resistant to change. Very. Resistant.

Oh Ash Wednesday, you are upon us. Today work was full of the usual “Ashes will be distributed at masses at 9, 12, and 6:30pm.” My goal is to avoid the church secretary’s tongue twister that offers the potential for mixing up ASHES and MASSES. If the “sh” ends up with the m, then the double s goes with the a. Oops! I think you get the picture. It has been said, by me, and no doubt by others. I’ve come to like the calls though! Seriously, I love the idea that there are at least a few days that people want to come and worship with us; it feels so hopeful. I’m funny that way, I am willing to change more when I feel hopeful.

Hmmm… Feeling hopeful, open to change! Well there’s a little theological nugget to ponder.

Anyway, what is it about getting ashes that is so attractive? I’m not complaining, because as I said, I’m happy that more people will come. So they only stop by once or twice a year? Hey, you never know, that could change at any time. Oh there is that hope and change thing again. But about the ashes, I do find myself curious at the draw.

When I was away from church, I would have never thought about getting ashes myself. I think I imagined some scary priest looking at me, wanting to put a question mark on my forehead instead of a cross! “Who goes there?” he would bellow, my long absence from the pews would be seen by his priestly x-ray sin specs. There is of course no such thing, and most priests that I know are pretty kindly, but I did not know that then. And I could not trust in such a thing! My pretty, shiny heart just stayed away – and stayed empty, too.

One Ash Wednesday a number of years ago comes to mind, when I worked in the East Village neighborhood in NYC, and there was not a Catholic church in the immediate area. Before I headed downtown for work, I left Grand Central Station and went to St. Agnes’ for ashes. After I got downtown, I came up the stairs from the Astor Place subway station, a woman practically assaulted me. “Where did you get those?” she said with the kind of intensity typically reserved for stolen goods. Her index finger looked like it was going to jab my forehead and I flinched. “St. Agnes, in midtown.” I replied. Looking dejected, her shoulders drooped down and she shook her head as she walked away and said, “Nevermind.

The draw of the ashes is big, isn’t it? We want to change, but we may not feel hopeful, or capable. Are ashes like buying new gym clothes? If you get them, you think you will be more fit? I should know, I’ve bought a lot of new gym clothes.

Perhaps all if this is why today’s first reading flew into my heart like a homing pigeon in search of a landing.

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.

Have I turned to God with my whole heart? Or do I want the spiritual equivalent of new gym clothes? Will I ever learn? The symbol does not the change make. The ashes don’t do the work – and neither do I, fully. If I understand any of this, and I don’t feel as if I do understand, I open myself to God, God works the changes, but we must turn towards God and cooperate. Me? Every now and then I do cooperate. But not too often.

Ash WedThat’s the trouble with change, it means work. It means discomfort. It means that even though I think that my stone heart looks pretty because it is not battle scarred and chipped. How easy it is to forget that the beauty is in the wound. Now there’s an Easter-season homily for you! The pretty, shiny stone heart is artifice; the jagged and less symmetrical mess – that is what God is in love with. That is what God can work with. That’s the dust! The dust that comes from the dissolution of my pretty, shiny stone heart, I guess.

God is persistently, patiently, ready for all of us to turn to God and change. Yet, most of us focus on gym clothes and ashes. At least I know that I do. Real change comes from within and is relational – all of which makes me want to run screaming from the room. Do we really want the ashes? If we truly understood what they meant, would we want them?

Ashes are easy, gym clothes while expensive, don’t cost you your life. This Lenten journey will be hard, but what other choice do we have but to take it with Christ? Once more I hear those words…

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.

My pretty, shiny stone heart would rather buy gym clothes and get ashes. That’s the trouble with change, isn’t it?


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