On Ash Wednesday

By Eugene R. Schlesinger

With my penchant for the melancholy, I’ve always resonated with what we might consider the “downer” moments of the liturgical year. The desolate waiting of Holy Saturday, the penitent (if not unhopeful or even unjoyful) waiting of Advent and Lent, and, of course, Ash Wednesday’s annual reminder that I am finite and mortal:

You are dust; and to dust you shall return.

I also wish I were the sort of person with refined enough sensibilities to understand and appreciate poetry. I’ve tried (though perhaps not as hard as I tend to think), and while I’ve got a few lines I’ve internalized and can trot out at the appropriate occasion, I’ve largely failed in this endeavor.

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A confluence of these two personality features is my near-annual attempt at reading T. S Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday at the outset of Lent. I can tell it’s good, but it always misses me, and I only finish the thing out of some dogged tenacity that doesn’t want to give up, and not because it’s doing its work upon me.

But its opening line has lodged in my psyche:

Because I do not hope to turn again

The line, particularly in the context of evoking that day on which we are encouraged precisely to turn again, captivates me and evokes an entire mood (as they say these days). On the one hand, such sentiment seems rather out of sync with the call to repentance and conversion issued here at the outset of Lent. On the one hand, it bespeaks the helplessness of the penitent. Left to our own devices, we can’t even manage repentance (…I do not hope to turn again), but rather are utterly dependent upon divine mercy and grace. No wonder this section of the poem ends by imploring, “Pray for us sinners now and the hour of our death.”

This year, during the gesimas, as I pondered how I want to approach this Lent — which parts of my life I hope to prune, which fruit I hope to bear — this line echoed in my mind in ways rather disconnected from the poem (I think…see above about my poetic disconnect).

I spent a good portion of 2021 seeing a therapist (something I highly recommend). I have a tendency towards depression, helped along by 38 or so years of finely crafting some really negative thought-patterns and self-talk. These, coupled with the strain of the pandemic, of the political cycle, and some profound disappointments in my personal life, convinced me that the time was right to get some help.

As a result, I’ve been working on being kinder to myself and cultivating happiness, which I’m learning to recognize is a choice.

Part of this has involved making peace with myself. I’m 39 years old. Hardly entering into my dotage, and still very much a “young adult” in the idiosyncratic demographic parlance of the Episcopal Church. But by now I’m pretty much set in my ways, locked in to my quirks, tics, and peccadillos. I recently quipped that I spent my 20s and early 30s figuring out who I am, and that my late 30s have focused on learning to love the person I’ve discovered I actually am.

So what do repentance and deepened conversion look like at this stage of my life, when I’m rather aware of how much and how little I might realistically expect to change about myself — when I’m trying not to unlearn my patterns of mental self-beratement? How can I most fruitfully approach and appropriate the call of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten journey?

We are reminded that we are “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.” Yet the call to repentance serves as a reminder that we mortal sinners are still infinitely loved (and therefore infinitely loveable), because God “hates nothing [he] has made.” We are called to repentance not because God rejects us, but precisely because God loves us and invites us into a fuller life.

And God loves us as we actually are: in all our frailty, in all our limitation, even in our sinfulness. “At the right time, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” What God loves is not some ideal version of us that doesn’t actually exist, nor the potential God sees in us (which also doesn’t yet actually exist), but rather us as we really are.

And so our Lenten summons to repentance is not an invitation to reject or repudiate ourselves, because God does not do this, and so neither should we, but to recognize our belovedness, and in view of this, to move more fully into life.

Yes, we leave behind sinful ways (insofar as we’re able) where we’ve acquired them, but repentance and conversion are not primarily negative realities. (Nor is there any correlation between our abasement and God’s exaltation; despite certain streams of Christian piety that seem to view a competitive relationship between the glory of God and any sort of affirmation of humanity…a sort of toxic reverse-Feuerbachian projection.)

In turning more fully to Christ, we also turn more fully to ourselves in radical affirmation, because God, who knows us, along with all our flaws and shortcomings, even more intimately than we know ourselves has radically affirmed us in the acts of creation and redemption. The scriptural basis for today’s collect is Wisdom 11:24:

For you love all things that exist,
and detest none of the things that you have made,
for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.
25 How would anything have endured if you had not willed it?
Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?

If we exist, it’s on purpose, because God wants us to be here. None of us must be here, so the fact that we are here is ultimately reducible to divine love. And when we fell into sin, God did not leave us to ourselves. Instead, the Word was made flesh, and suffered, died, and rose again, so that not even our sins could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In coming to Christ, we leave nothing of ourselves behind, only our sins, which turn out not to define us after all (else we could never be redeemed).

I realize that there’s nothing earth shaking here. It’s all fairly pedestrian, standard gospel fare, shifting no paradigms: God loves us, Christ invites us to the fullness of life and has brought this about by his life, death, and resurrection. But the circumstances where theological novelty is needed or helpful are rare indeed. Nevertheless, as we approach our Lenten journey, it is good to be reminded of these truths that are all too easy to forget.

To be marked with ashes, to be told that we are dust, bound for dust, is an act of humility, but it ought not be an act of humiliation, because we are loved dust, and we are loved precisely in our dustiness. Even if beyond our return to dust there is the hope of resurrection (and there is!), this does not change God’s affirmation of us, here and now, as dust.

About The Author

Eugene Schlesinger is Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. The author of Sacrificing the Church: Mass, Mission, and Ecumenism (Fortress Academic, 2019) and Missa Est! A Missional Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, 2017), and the editor of Covenant, he understands his vocation to be an Episcopalian who does Catholic theology.

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6 months ago

Amen. And how very “un-Gnostic” of you.