By The Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe
In Godly Play classes, at the end of most stories we reflect together on three questions: “I wonder what part of this story you like best? I wonder what part of this story is the most important part? I wonder what part of this story we could leave out, and still have everything that we need?”
In the last year, we have learned to ask these questions not only of stories in Godly Play, but also of seasons and celebrations, too. We’ve asked them of holy days and holidays, of school and church, of Easter and Christmas. What part of this story is my favorite? What part of this story is the most important? What part of this story could we leave out and still have everything we need?
This Ash Wednesday, these questions may be helpful to us as we deal with a very different sort of observance of this holy day. We need to remember what we love about the day, what is most important, and what might be left out without losing any of the essence of the day.
I have a feeling that most people’s favorite part of the day is the ashes. That little smudge on our foreheads feels so special and personal, as we hear the words quietly spoken to us, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Many of us wear the ashes proudly on our faces for the rest of the day, whatever Jesus may have said on the matter of practicing our piety before others (Matthew 6:1)!
And our love of the ashes may make it seem like they must also be the most important part. It’s called “Ash Wednesday,” after all. And this apparent importance has caused bishops, priests, and chaplains across the country to turn themselves inside out trying to figure out how to administer ashes in the time of COVID. Do we send out little baggies of ashes? Do we administer outside and masked? Do we do it without speaking the words? And what to do when there’s a snowstorm and you can’t even get to church? And the reason for all this thought and attention is because we assume that the most important part of Ash Wednesday must be the ashes.
But I’m going to let you in on a little secret… they’re not. In The Book of Common Prayer, the administration of ashes on Ash Wednesday is completely optional. Saying the prayers? That’s required. Reading the Scripture lessons? That’s required. Inviting the people of God to the observance of a Holy Lent? That’s required. But the ashes…? Optional. Because, you see, the ashes are not the most important thing. They are an outward, visible sign of the day, but they are just a sign. They point us to a truth, but they are not the truth.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday might be our favorite part of this day. They might be the most visible and the most obvious, and it will be sad to miss them. But the ashes are also the part of the story that we could leave out and still have everything we need. Because the most important part is not simply to act faithful, but to be faithful; the most important part is not to show our repentance, but actually repent; the most important part is not to attend Ash Wednesday, but to observe Ash Wednesday.
Which means, the most important part of Ash Wednesday is something that we can do wherever we are and whatever we do or don’t have around us: “Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing (Joel 2:12-14).” The most important part is to use this hour, this day, and this season to get to the heart of it all, and to ask the questions at the heart of ourselves.
Seeking answers to these questions is too big to fit in a single day. That’s why Ash Wednesday is just the start of a whole season, Lent. For 40 holy days, we are invited to wonder about and wrestle with these essential questions:
- I wonder what part of you is your favorite part?
- I wonder what part of you is the most important part?
- I wonder what you could leave out and still have everything you need?
That is big work. It is hard work. But it is holy work. And this Ash Wednesday, and this Lent, it is the most important thing.
Adapted from the Sermon for Ash Wednesday, preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Dallas, by the Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe.