The gospel reading that is assigned for Ash Wednesday troubles me. Every year, when I sit down to prepare the Ash Wednesday service, I can’t help but wonder why the powers that be chose this particular reading for Ash Wednesday. There’s something odd about hearing the words ascribed to Jesus, telling us to pray secretly in our rooms and to brush our hair and wash our face so that no one will know what we are up too on a day when we gather together to pray and mark ourselves smack dab on the middle of our foreheads with ashen crosses so that everyone who sees us will know that we’ve just been worshiping. The juxtaposition of Jesus’ calling us to secrecy and this public display of piety is more than a little peculiar.
Like most preachers, I usually ignore the obvious tension between the gospel reading and our traditional Ash Wednesday worship practices. I usually do what I’ve been taught to do which is to focus our attention on our mortality. Ash Wednesday is the moment in the church year where we remember that none of us gets out of this life alive. From dust we came to dust we shall return. But after 19 years of digging around in the ashes, I thought I would shift my focus and wander around in the gospel reading to see if I could begin to understand something of what it might offer us as we embark on our Lenten journey.
My initial impressions of this text made me uncomfortable. As someone whose job requires that I pray in public, the idea that I share this activity with hypocrites who “love to pray standing in synagogues and on street corners for people to see them,” well this alone gives me pause to wonder. But that’s not what troubles me most about this reading: “when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to God who is in the secret place, and your Abba God—who sees all that is done in secret—will reward you.” I hear a call to intimacy in these words. This call to intimacy stirs my own desires for intimacy with our ABBA God. I long to spend time in this “secret place” where God IS.
I must confess that travelling to this secret place is not something that I do often enough. And so, this call to go to my room, shut the door, and pray, inspires more than a little guilt in me. I know that prayer is time spent in the presence of the Divine. In my mind, it is easy to rationalize by saying that prayer is a way of living, conscious that we live, and move, and have our being in God. But in my heart, there’s a desire for the kind of intimacy that I have experienced at various times in my life; the kind of intimacy that even just remembering it, nourishes, grounds, and sustains me in ways that are beyond words. This intimacy with the Divine is alluring but life itself is demanding and so there never seems to be enough time to go there to that secret place.
On Ash Wednesday, we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return and the knowledge that we have only a limited amount of time, only serves to accentuate my desire for intimacy with the Divine. The fleeting, fragile, uncertain, nature of life compels me to venture deeply into the secret place, where ever it may be. I don’t want to turn away from the wonders of life. Nor do I want to give up any of the tantalizing gifts of life just to fulfill some traditional practice of observing Lent. The magnitude of the wonders of life that sprang forth out of a 14-billion-year-old process that began in stardust, deserves our full attention as we celebrate the miracles that brought each of us into being. The fecundity of the dust out of which life sprang continues to seed creation with promise.
Yes, life is frail and fleeting. Yes, we shall all return to the dust. But surely, the limitations of time make this life all the sweeter, as we each take our part in this cosmic adventure. There is beauty in each passing moment. The lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the delicacies and delights of relationship. In the midst of all this splendor, the grandeur of our God is revealed over and over again, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, life by life, relationship by relationship.
Is it any wonder that we long for intimacy with the Divine? But dare we? How do we begin to approach the Creator of all that is? How do we find the time, make the time, or take the time to enter the secret place where our God waits to meet with us?
One of my favorite articulations of the Holy Trinity comes from St. Augustine who described God as, our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF. Tonight, I would like to offer you a taste of intimacy with our LOVE, BELOVED and LOVE ITSELF.
There is a song that I have always loved. This song is sung from the perspective of a lover, who never seems to have enough time to be in the presence of the beloved lover. I’m suggest that you to close your eyes and listen to the song. As you listen, I’d like you to imagine yourself as the singer. Imagine that you are the lover singing about your desire to spend time with your LOVER. I’d also like you to imagine that God is your LOVER, the ONE that you desire. As the song progresses, switch roles. Now you are the beloved, and God is the singer, singing of God’s desire to spend time with you. Listen as your LOVER sings to you the beloved.
Close your eyes. Take some deep breathes. Let this time take you to the secret place where our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF waits to BE with you.