Ashes on the forehead represent mortality, grief, and loss - and thus a new way of thinking and living, and hope.
Our culture has a
way of handling grief and loss. We pile on kind expressions of sympathy - and
then we move on, and hope to grieving one moves on also. Lingering grief - or
worse, an ongoing sense of loss - is unbearable. We want our sympathy to "work,"
to make the other person feel better. We want to feel better when we suffer
loss, and soon.
The Bible, oddly,
seems to seek out grief, stirs it up, invites it, even expects it. The vast
majority of the Bible's prayers are laments, expressions of sorrow, rage, grief.
We are even invited not merely to mourn our own losses and those close to us,
but the pains of strangers in other places, and even to let our hearts be broken
by whatever breaks the heart of God. It's as if the spiritual entails some daily
about tears: they cleanse us inside, something bottled up is released; in the
Bible, tears are an open channel into the heart of God. Perhaps it is only as we
grieve that we open ourselves to true joy. Suffering reduces us to who we really
are, the fake, surfacey stuff molts away, and we sympathize with others; our
minds change. Suffering is inevitable - and God is there.
In a letter to
Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton wrote that life with God "isn't a matter of
getting a bulldog grip on faith and not letting the devil pry us
loose from it. No, it is a matter of letting go rather than keeping hold. I am
coming to think that God loves and helps best those who are so beat and have so
much nothing when they come to die that it is almost as if they had persevered
in nothing but had gradually lost everything, piece by piece, until there was
nothing left but God... It is a question of his hanging on to us, by the hair of
the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach. What man
can see the top of his own head?"
Prayer from the
Daily Office: "Lord, I have spent much of my life running from pain and
losses, medicating my pain and quickly moving on to the next project. I ask for
grace to embrace all of life - the joys and the sorrows, the births and the
deaths, the old and the new."
Our Ash Wednesday
services are at 11am and 7pm.
An Invitation to Lent (on the Transfiguration, Matthew 17), is on