Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Ruined Stars: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in the Liturgical year that reminds us that we are dust, and all too soon, we'll return to dust. Those of us who go to Ash Wednesday services will have a cross smudged on our foreheads, a cross of ash ideally made from burning the palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. We hear some variation of these words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same.

You say you're unfamiliar with Ash Wednesday? Are you one of the bajillion people who celebrated Mardi Gras yesterday or maybe you went further and had yourself a season of Carnivale? You have participated in the liturgical year without perhaps even realizing it. Those holidays arose as a response to the liturgical season of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday. In much earlier church times, Lent was a time of discipline, of giving up, of penitence. Many Christians, if they were wealthy enough to afford the items in the first place, gave up sugar and meat and fat and alcohol. So, as the season of Lent approached, they had to get all those items out of the house--thus, a festive party opportunity!

Yesterday, my campus celebrated Mardi Gras, sort of.  We had beads, but no festive drinks.  We bought charcoal grills the day before, and my boss, the executive director of the campus, spent the afternoon grilling burgers for all.  We had salad and veggie burgers, and two kinds of cake.  They were sheet cakes--carrot and red velvet--that one can buy at Costco type stores.   In other words, they were fairly simple, but some people acted as if they were eating the food of the gods.  It was a hectic day, and it took days out of my work week to plan and shop, but it was satisfying to see people having such a good time.

Some might ask why my focus wasn't more academic; some might wonder if I was avoiding the true work.  I have no idea.  I know that some of our students need the food.  I know that some of our students need to feel more stitched in to the campus.  I know that some of our students see the campus as their only source of stability.  These kinds of events help foster a good morale, and therefore, I have hopes that these kinds of events improve retention.  I have no way of measuring my theory, no measurable outcomes that I can definitively link to campus co-curricular activities.

They also bring me joy.  Let me not underestimate that factor.  The joy keeps me going through the less fun aspects of the job.

And now, the season of penitence.  It also happens to be the season of a lot of writing of accreditation documents.  This pairing makes sense to me.

Behold the words of ancient wisdom:  

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." We walk this planet for such a short time.  This high, holy day reminds us of that fact--viscerally. We are a marked people.

Later in the day, I will lead a journaling class at church before Ash Wednesday service.  Here's my favorite photo of ashes on the forehead, which happens to be my forehead after the 2014 service:

Here's a quote from Henri Nouwen to start your day. It's from A Cry for Mercy: "Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failings and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says 'I am too sinful to deserve God's mercy.' It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride. Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: 'Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God's mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?' The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God's mercy."

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