“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me…” Psalm 51:3
This story comes to mind most every year on Ash Wednesday.
I was six, maybe seven years old.
We were on a family camping trip. The fold out camper had been backed into its spot and unhitched from our station wagon. My mother had taken my sisters to find the rest room and I was back at the campsite with my dad, ‘helping’ him get things set up.
This is what happened next. My dad caught my eye and very directly told me to watch my step. He nodded his head towards the ashes of the fire left behind by the last occupants of that space and he said to me, “Don’t walk there. It’s probably still hot.”
For you see, no more than a few minutes passed before I forgot his warning and barefoot, I walked right through those still hot coals.
I sometimes still feel like that little girl who was duly warned and then forgot it altogether. Oh yes, how often do I still do the same — walking through fire as though it’s not there, or believing that somehow it can’t hurt me — entirely disregarding a voice of protective, loving-kindness which only wants good for me.
I do it all the time. And so it is that along with a multitude of others across an unending spectrum of time and space on this first Wednesday in Lent I kneel with you and receive that smudge of ashes and hear the words once more: “Remember that you are Dust and to Dust you shall return.”
For, yes, it is so. I am dust. I am frail and flawed and often so very broken and I am in desperate, yearning need of the certainty that while I am all of these things, God is not. Oh yes, I am one who will walk through hot coals immediately after having been told not to, and I cling to the certainty that Jesus is there waiting to bind up my wounds and set me back up on my feet once more.
Those many years ago when I walked through those white-hot ashes, I stifled my cry so that no one would know for in that very first instant, I knew I had done exactly as I had just been told not to do. And for the longest time I never said a word. Somehow I must have been able to disguise my limp and yes, I do know how fortunate I am that healing came on its own in my silent shame.
On Ash Wednesday, though, we all wear the crosses of our frailty, our disobedience, and our brokenness right on our foreheads for all the world to see. As much as we would like to hide our sinfulness so that no one else will know, we know that we cannot. For we are all the same and so very able to recognize in each other even what we may refuse to acknowledge in ourselves. But ashes or not? God sees and God knows and God does not leave us in our shame. Instead, God acts to bring healing and hope and with God’s promised forgiveness, new beginnings. Indeed, this precious promise make it possible for me to acknowledge the truth. And so I do.
For I am frail and flawed and often so very broken. I do what I should not, sometimes as soon as I’m told not to and the scars are mine to live with in this life now. I walk with a limp — disguised — hoping that no one will know and all the while I ache for the pain to stop, for my shame to be erased, and for healing to come.
And God hears my cry, God hears our cry, and God answers.
For with a smudge of ashes in the sign of a cross I am reminded that Christ Jesus paid the price for my frailty and my flaws and my brokenness. On another cross.
- What does the ritual of ashes on Ash Wednesday mean to you? Is it comforting, frightening, or something else altogether?
- Do you have ‘sins’ of which you are so ashamed —whether those of a seven year old or a fifty seven year old — that you would want no one to know? How are you disguising your “limp” and aching for healing? What difference does it make to you that God sees and God knows and God still and always loves and forgives?