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PACE: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
Lyn Pace
Lyn Pace - photo by Special Photo

In almost five years of articles, I have never focused solely on Ash Wednesday, the Christian holy day where we intentionally focus on our mortality. This is not a greeting card kind of holiday. It is not the holiday full of joyous carols or egg hunts. However, it, too, has its place.

One of the scriptures for the day is from the prophet Joel. “Return to me with all your hearts.” “Rend” or tear “your hearts and not your clothing,” the prophet writes. 

In her poem, “Rend Your Heart: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday,” Jan Richardson says, “To receive this blessing, all you have to do is let your heart break.”

Every year on Ash Wednesday, we acknowledge our mortality. That is why we smudge ashes on our foreheads and wear them around for others to see. 

Last year, when we gathered in person in our chapel, I knew of COVID and had some idea it would reach us soon in Georgia, but I had no idea what we would be facing. None of us did.

I had no idea how much our hearts would break because of the death, isolation, loss of work, sacrifices and then, of course, the stress of essential workers and others. 

Smearing ashes on our forehead and reflecting on our mortality reminds us that life is a gift. Life is also fragile. 

There is more to Ash Wednesday than this, too. It is the beginning of the holy season of Lent, a 40-day season of rest, reflection, renewal, and repentance. For instance, Joel also writes, “Return to me with all your hearts.” Joel is not asking us to return to him, the prophet. He is speaking as if God is speaking, “Return to me (God) with all your hearts.”

Joel introduces another theme of this day and the season of Lent – to return. To return or turn around is what the word “repent” literally means. The question for us is, “What are the ways in which we need to turn around or change direction in our lives?” It is an important question to keep in front of us during Lent.

When I think of changing directions, I often think of forgiveness. Who needs forgiving? Well, all of us. We need to forgive ourselves. Forgive others. We often need to allow someone to forgive us. 

There is a beautiful song from the Taizé community in the south of France called “God is Forgiveness.” Just as Joel writes, “Return to me with all your hearts,” so the song reminds us, “God is forgiveness. Dare to forgive and God will be with you.” Indeed. 

Later in her poem, Jan Richardson reminds us that our entire life is inscribed whole upon our heart’s walls. She says it could take days to wander the rooms of our heart, a heart that contains our entire life. “Forty, at least,” she writes. 

Lent’s 40 days are ripe for us to wander. They are ripe for “trusting the breaking,” as she writes. It is a season for us to be intentional. It is a time where we can develop the intention with which we want to live the rest of the days in 2021. 

Whether or not you participate in these Christian sacred days and seasons, you still have the chance to think about intention. Read more poetry. Take more walks. Join a virtual book club. Develop a contemplative practice. Forgive more. Judge less.

Let this season of wandering remind you of God’s love. Of our need for forgiveness and to forgive. Of setting intentions. Let the wandering lead you to wondering.

The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is a United Methodist minister and college chaplain who lives in Oxford with his spouse and 8-year-old.