As Ash Wednesday approaches (it will fall on February 10th this year), I am re-reading City of God: Faith in the Streets by Sara Miles, and I expect this will become a pre-Lent tradition for me. Somehow, Sara Miles wrote the words that were on my heart and helped me to better understand why I love Ash Wednesday so very much. Even in years when I had decided adamantly that I was done with church, I felt drawn to attend Ash Wednesday services. In the past few years, when church has become important to me, the litany of confession has brought me happy tears. Why? What happens in this observance?
Ash Wednesday is about repentance. Not about guilt, or about saying sorry, but about changing. “Repentance requires paying attention to others, and learning to love, even a little bit, what God loves so much: the whole screwed-up world, this holy city, the people God created to be his own.” It is about changing in a way that brings us closer to other human beings, and closer to God, and leaving behind—fasting from—that which separates us from others and from God. This kind of change affirms that life is short and the time to love is now. This, for me, is powerful and energizing.
We spend a lot of time and effort trying to get things figured out (or, at least, trying to appear that we have everything figured out). And then on Ash Wednesday there is this slap of truth: ashes to ashes. Some people might think receiving ashes, hearing “you are dust and to dust you shall return” is a morbid ritual. Yet my experience has been that it is absolutely liberating. We are mortal. Somehow the ceremonial acknowledgement of this reality is refreshing. Where I live, in the U.S., so much of the culture is focused on a false sense of immortality: buy this and everything will be fine; you will be happy and you’ll live forever! (Not in those exact words, perhaps, but that really is the gist of all marketing.)
And it’s not true. Our time is limited and precious and, too often, we squander it. Ash Wednesday is a precious gift of reminder. In the words of Will Hocker, friend of Sara Miles and chaplain at San Francisco General Hospital, Ash Wednesday is a chance “to bow down in public and say, I’m not in charge; I’m not going to live forever.” We are not in charge of life and death, and that is ok. The truth can be scary, but the truth also can be a blessing. It can be freeing to lay down the burden of impossible control.
Throughout City of God, as Sara Miles walks her neighborhood and shares ashes, readers can see the importance of community, of gathering, of collective acts that demonstrate we all are sharing this journey. We must support one another with any small mercy we can offer.
Disclaimer: This review is freely given, based on my own copy of the book. No fee was received.