“Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests; wail, you ministers of the altar. Come, pass the night in sackcloth, you ministers of God!”
Reflection by Anthony B. Robinson
One year, as the new pastor at First Church, I persuaded the Worship Committee to try an Ash Wednesday service. Since it was a new thing, we decided to sweeten the pot with a concert of African-American spirituals, by a noted local artist, following the service.
His concert got full-page publicity in both city papers. When I got up to lead our first-ever Ash Wednesday service, the sanctuary was packed, mostly with people I had never laid eyes on before. I panicked. “What in the world will they think of this . . . this long confession of sin . . . the imposition of the ashes? Will they think we’ve done a bait-and-switch, ashes instead of concert?” I offered a wordy explanation.
When the time came for the imposition of ashes I wasn’t sure if anyone would come forward. To my astonishment, hundreds did. So many faces were open in hope and anticipation. So many eyes were tear-filled. We made the sign of the cross on forehead after forehead, saying only, “Turn away from your sins and believe the good news of the gospel.” The sense of God’s presence was palpable.
Why was that? For sure, I don’t know. Touch? Mystery? Risk? Something old and ancient? Something new and strange? Maybe, in spite of all our denials and our attempts at self-justification, we do know we have sinned. And we long for mercy, for forgiveness.
So few words, repeated over and over, like a chant. “Turn away from your sins and believe the good news of the gospel.” Sometimes our many words drown out God’s Word. Often, too many words keep us stuck in our heads when our hearts long for God.
Let this day, this Ash Wednesday, be a day for fewer words all day long. Let it be a day for some stillness, for paying quiet attention to mystery, to beauty, to the sacred.
Holy One, into our sorrow and confusion, our brokenness and pride, speak your word of healing and hope, your word of grace. Amen.