I vividly remember my first experience with Ash Wednesday. I was eighteen and a freshman at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Walking around campus that morning, I found myself surrounded by people with smudges of dirt on their foreheads. The first sighting seemed odd. By the time I had seen several people so adorned, I was determined to track down one of my Catholic friends to discover what on earth was going on. Thus began my initiation into Lent.
Eighteen years later, I am the one wearing ashes. This morning, I was reminded that I am dust and to dust I shall return. I knelt in the now familiar Ash Wednesday service to lament my sins, articulated poignantly in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer:
“We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven. Have mercy on us, Lord.”
“We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ has served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit. Have mercy on us, Lord.” And so it continues.
I also remembered that, in Christ, God has “delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before [him]...brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” The day that once seemed strange has become a comfort — a day to embrace forgiveness and the freedom of surrendering my mortality and finitude to an infinite and infinitely loving God.
In recent years, following the long tradition of “giving something up for Lent,” I have embraced the practice of tangible, little surrenders to mark this greater reality. I have given up common attachments — television, chocolate, sweets, and this year, Facebook — and sought greater intimacy with God, who is the source of all good things. While I plan to abstain from Facebook this Lent, my inspiration, drawn from Thomas Merton, is not to detach myself from any thing so much as to detach from myself. (And what better represents attachment to self in our culture than Facebook at its worst?) As Merton says:
“Detachment from things does not mean setting up a contradiction between ‘things’ and ‘God’ as if God were another ‘thing’ and as if His creatures were His rivals. We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 21).
In self-surrender, the way of Lent and of the cross, may we find greater freedom to see all created things in their proper place and to love what God has made for God’s sake, for in losing our lives, we are promised to find life.