Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

The homily for our Middle and Upper School chapel services today...

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 6:3-10

About this time in February, three years ago, I watched for the first signs of spring in our yard.  We had moved to Jackson in late August the year before, when the summer heat had already baked everything except a few over-pruned shrubs and an over-grown magnolia.  I had never seen anything blooming in our new front yard, and was ready to be surprised by daffodils and snowdrops and irises.

Nothing happened.  Nothing came up.  Nothing grew.  Nothing bloomed.  For two years the only way you could tell whether it was summer or winter in our yard was if the grass was green or brown.

I wan't much of a gardener, but desperate for at least a little bit of color, I planted a few snapdragons around our mailbox.  I tugged at the tendrils of St. Augustine grass just as its brown season was beginning, found the loose soil beneath, and tucked the half grown flowers in close...and watched them grow.

After that, I couldn't keep my hands out of the dirt!  By the time the green season returned, I had planted some herbs and heather and lantana.  A friend who knows much more about growing things than I do planted roses and crepe myrtles and countless bulbs that had finished blooming, so that their flowers would be a surprise the next time around.  If you're watching for the first signs of spring in my yard this year, you won't be disappointed.  The grass is still brown, but there are green shoots everywhere, pushing soil and pine straw aside to make way for stems and leaves lengthening even as the days grow ever so slightly longer.

It is lovely that, in our northern hemisphere anyway, the church season of Lent and the earth season of brown-becoming-green coincide.  In fact, the word Lent comes from the same root that gives us the word lengthen, and at one time that was it was the name for this very time of year when the return of light and warmth bids us stretch our own winter-weary bones (and we are indeed weary of this winter!) and tend to the shoots and stems and other signs of new life as they appear all around us, bursting from the earth as from a tomb.

In this season of Lent, when things that grow are stretching toward the source of light and life, we are also encouraged to go deep, to consider those things that come between ourselves and God, to name the ways we have unintentionally and intentionally hurt ourselves or others, to be mindful of the ways in which our growth helps or hinders the growth of others around us.  Indeed, every faith tradition has a season or an annual observance during which believers reflect on their sins and through prayer and action return to a right relationship with God and with others.

The language of Lent, especially as it begins on this day, is filled with brown and brittle words like wrong-doing, sinfulness, mistakes, repentance, dust and ashes.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return, many of us will hear as ashes are smudged on our foreheads, a sign of our mortality, of our inevitable failure to thrive.

But then again... From the very beginning, when in the biblical story of creation God kneels down in the rich, dark soil and lovingly forms and shapes by hand a human figure and breathes God's very own breath into it to give it life, and calls it adamah, Adam, which is Hebrew for dust... From the very beginning, God, the maker of heaven and earth, has been covered head to toe in dust and ashes and dirt. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and into the Christian testament, the story of God and adamah, God and dust, God and us, has been a story about things that grow, things that live, things that stretch toward the source of light and life, things that make the world a lovelier place.

In the Broadway musical production of The Secret Garden, young Mary is delighted to discover the entrance to a walled garden only to find that the plants inside are brown and dead.  Her friend, Dickon, encourages her, scraping away at one of the stems to show her that the plant is wick:

When a thing is wick, it has a life about it, Dickon sings.  Somewhere there's a single streak of green inside it, waiting for the right time to be seen.  When a thing is wick, it has a light around it; maybe not a light that you can see, but hiding down below a spark's asleep inside it... You clear away the dead parts so the tender buds can form; loosen up the earth and let the roots get warm.  Come a mild day, come a warm rain, come a snowdrop a comin' up, come a lily, come a lilac, calling all the rest to come and see...

The season of Lent, especially as it begins today, is about remembering who we are - we are people made of dust and the breath of God, we are people made in the image of God, whose greatest love is getting down in the dirt and making something wonderful grow out of it.  Remember that you are are are rich, fertile soil.  What is God planting deep inside of you?  What is growing there?  What keeps it from growing?  Today we are invited to begin the work of clearing away those dead parts of ourselves to that tender buds can form, of loosening up the earth and letting our roots get warm.  Come a mild day, come a warm rain, come Easter morning, we'll be called to come and see what new life is bursting forth... Amen.

Artwork: Photos from our front yard; cross of ashes, artist unknown; "Early Spring," woodcutting by Art Hansen.

1 comment:

Carrie Bevell Partridge said...

This is really beautiful, Jennifer. Thank you for writing it. I love the imagery you use. Enjoy watching all the growth around you this spring!