By James G. Munroe
Just this past week, a friend asked me, “Why ashes?”
I can best answer that question by telling you about something that happened when I was in college. I played on our varsity hockey team, and I was the goalie.
On the day I have in mind, we were playing an away game. The stands were filled with fans of the other team. At one point during the second period, with the score tied at zero, there was a flurry of activity at the other end of the hockey rink. Then the puck came down toward me. For those of you who are knowledgeable about hockey, the puck was hit by my own defenseman, so it wasn’t icing.
The puck went slowly past me, bounced off the backboard, rolled very slowly back toward me, gently hit my goalie stick, and then trickled into my goal at about one inch per hour. I had scored on myself, and there was not another player on either team within 50 yards of me.
There was dead silence in the hockey rink for about three seconds. And in the silence, high up in the stands, one lone voice said, “Oh my God!” Then the whole place erupted in laughter and cheering for the other team.
I’m not sure that I have the words to describe what that moment felt like. But I believe that it’s something of what we’re invited to feel in this Ash Wednesday service. Because this special day is about failure: failure to achieve worth by our actions, failure to be in control, failure to keep out hockey pucks and cancer and heart attacks, failure to stop hurricanes and towers coming down and political conflicts, failure to just plain stay alive.
Because the final failure of being in control is death. George Bernard Shaw once said, “The statistics on death are impressive.” The Bible says the same thing, differently: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” It’s sobering to realize that 200 years from now, not one person on the face of the earth will know that any of us ever existed, let alone what we were like.
So one option for Ash Wednesday is to leave this service feeling the way I did after the hockey game — not in control, not very lovable, and very dusty.
There is one other option. Because in the very midst of all the awful hockey games and all the failures to be good enough and all the lack of control and all the experiences of death, we are given an invitation. It’s the invitation to look down the long tunnel of Lent to the end of these 40 days. We’re invited to look toward the cross. And we’re invited to see that it certainly seemed as though Jesus was also out of control.
You remember that in his three years of public ministry, Jesus did seem to be in control at first. He was going to weddings, he was dining in people’s homes, he was multiplying loaves and fishes, and he was healing people.
But as soon as Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem — which is to say, as soon as he reached his own Ash Wednesday — then everything changed. He seemed to lose control, because things started to be done to him. He was accused of all sorts of crimes, he was lied to, he was abandoned by his best friends, he was thrown into jail, he was beaten, he was put on trial, he was declared guilty, he was executed, and his body was buried in a borrowed tomb.
And the invitation to us in this service is to see that it was not in spite of his lack of control, but rather precisely because he chose to not be in control, that Jesus won the ultimate victory over sin and death. That’s the news of this Ash Wednesday, that Jesus chose the cross, in order that we might know that we are forgiven, just as we are. That’s the news of this Ash Wednesday, that we are invited to understand not being in control in a whole new way.
You and I are invited, as St. Paul puts it in today’s second reading (2 Cor. 6:1-10), to be so out of control that we know ourselves as dying, and behold we live — to be so out of control that we know ourselves as sorrowful, and yet always rejoicing; to be so out of control that we know ourselves as having nothing, and yet possessing everything, in the forgiveness and love of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.
It’s all summed up in an illustration I saw some time ago on the cover of The New Yorker that was published on February 14, Valentine’s Day. It shows a man standing beside the door to his apartment. The door is loaded with locks: latches, dead bolts, police bars, and electronic alarms. And the man does not notice that down on the floor at his feet, there is a Valentine that someone has slipped under the door.
As you and I are standing behind locked doors in this service, trying to keep out hockey pucks, trying to pretend that we’re in control, trying to pretend that we’re not dust, Almighty God is slipping his love under the door.
My prayer is that even in this service, we may hear the voice of Jesus, crucified and risen, from the other side of the door — and see the locks just falling away.