I've never commemorated Ash Wednesday or Lent. I admit, in my judgmental state, I just sort of thought it was an empty ritual - people went to Mass, got some ashes put on their heads, vowed to give up something for a month and then they went on their way.
That is not what I experienced last night.
Since our new house is a bit of a distance from our church (and a nightmare-ish traffic catastrophe to get there), James suggested that we go to a small Baptist church nearby - he had heard there was a Bible study there on Wednesday nights and wanted to check it out.
Well, we get there only to find out it was an Ash Wednesday service. Since we were there already, we decided to stay. The downstairs doors to the fellowship hall were wide open, the lights were on - but nobody was there. Deserted, it felt like.
So, we walked upstairs to go in the main doors, pulled on them, rattled them a little. Locked.
We still were not easily dissuaded, so we tried to scope out another open door on the side of the church. I think we both felt like we were really meant to be there. All the sudden, the main doors swing open and a young guy about our age invited us in - the door just sticks, he said.
So we went into this old church, and it felt like we were stepping back in time...the wooden pews, the hymn numbers posted in the front, candles glowing....the church is just about 150 years old, we later found out. It had a very different feeling than our church. Solemn. Sacred. But I liked it.
The pastor greeted us and welcomed us to the service. James and I sat down - and so did the other guy. And then the pastor started speaking. I thought he was going to wait for more people to come, but he started promptly at 7pm. And no one else came. Just me, James and other guy and the pastor.
The pastor spoke of the significance of the ashes - representing mortality, mourning and repentance. And he gave us each a piece of paper to reflect on things that control us in our lives, that have become 'God' to us, sins and wrong attitudes in our hearts, things that are holding us back.
We each wrote on our paper and then brought it up to the front. This represented our repentance - our acknowledgment of our sin and our sorrow for it. Our shame. I felt it. I felt the weight of my honesty with myself and my short-comings.
And then the pastor burned it and put the ashes on our head. Forgiveness, he said. Our sin was burned up. God forgives us.
And then he said what I think touched me the most:
"When you go home tonight and wash the ashes off your head, remember that God has washed you clean of your sin and guilt. He doesn't see the sin, the shame, the 'ash' - He sees you cleansed, perfect - through Jesus."
And I got it. I got the ashes, I got the idea behind Lent - and I felt the lightness that comes when Grace arrives and puts your burdens on His back. And I realize that what we sacrifice for Lent is not to 'pay for' our sin or to try to do penance; what we give up for Lent is so we can be closer to God, because Jesus already paid for our sin, so now being close to God is possible.
Then we joined hands and all prayed together - the 4 of us - and then James and I stayed a while after and chatted.
Having never been to an Ash Wednesday service, I didn't know if this was the usual protocol - the writing on the paper, the burning it together, the prayer together at the end. It was just a half hour - but I was so touched.
I can't tell you what a nice night it was. No, nice is the definitely the wrong word. It was moving. Sacred. Reverent. Holy.
I just felt like it wasn't an accident for us that we ended up there - and it wasn't an accident for them either. We all just had a sense like this little gathering of 4 was somehow what was meant to be for the night. Well...5. Very apparently, God was there, too.