Ash Wednesday: Practice Truth-Telling

Christine Valters PaintnerAsh Wednesday marks a threshold when we leave ordinary time to enter into the journey of Lent through the desert. The desert is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of our seemingly secure and structured world, where things begin to crack.

We begin this desert journey marked with ashes, the sign of our mortality. There is wisdom in these ashes. If you have ever been near death or had a loved one die, you know the clarity that an awareness of our bodily limits can bring. How suddenly what is most important in life rises to the surface. This is the invitation of Lent, to realign our priorities. In remembering that we will die, we are called to remember God who is the source of our life.

When we are marked with ash on our foreheads we hear the invitation to "repent and believe the good news." One of the Hebrew words for repent is nacham. The root of this word means "to draw a deep breath" as well as to be deeply moved to a feeling of sorrow. The Greek word for repent is metanoia, which means "to reconsider." But it is also a compound word made up of the words, "meta" and "nous." "Meta" means "transformation" and "nous" means "soul." So, as we begin this journey we are invited to nothing less than a "transformation of the soul."

But how are we to be transformed and believe the good news? How are we to have hope when our lives are faced with the struggle of trying to make our way in the world, when loved ones face illness, when we are still at war with other countries and with ourselves. Certainly our journey through Lent is toward the season of Easter, a season of resurrection, but how do we get from here to there?

The prophet Joel offers some insight in our first reading (Jl. 2:1-2, 12-17). "Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Even now, in the midst of death and destruction, loss and pain, God calls to us. Not for a half-hearted acknowledgement, but to return to God with our whole heart, with the fullness of who we are. Return with fasting and weeping and mourning. This is a call to the practice of lament.

Each one of us carries grief, sorrow that has perhaps gone unexpressed or been stifled or numbed. Each of us has been touched by pain and suffering at some time. Yet we live in a culture that tells us to move on, to get over it, or to shop or drink our way through sorrow. Or to fill our moments with the chatter of TV and radio and ipods so that we never have to face the silent desert of our hearts. It is the same kind of attitude that forces us to answer "fine" when others ask how we are and we really aren't. Even our churches often try to move us too quickly to a place of hope without fully experiencing the sorrow that pierces us.

Why do we work so hard to resist our tears? Jesus wept. We see him in John's gospel shedding tears over the death of his friend Lazarus; in Luke we see him weeping over the whole city of Jerusalem because of their indifference.

What is the sorrow you carry with you today? Is it because of personal loss? A death, a job loss, a broken relationship, or an illness? Is it sorrow over the war that rages on thousands of miles from us? Is it because of the 18,000 children who will die today because of preventable hunger? Is it the ongoing racism that devastates communities or the religious hostilities that divide nations? Is it the thousands of people who have died as a result of the earthquake in Haiti?

I invite you to take just a moment to be in touch with the grief that you carry with you.

We resist feeling our pain because our society discourages it. Even without the absence of permission to feel sorrow, how many of us have the time and space it requires to adequately mourn our losses? Beyond the brief sound bites we receive in the news each night, where are the space and the resources we need to process our sorrow?

This is where the profound wisdom in our tradition of lament enters. The Hebrew scriptures are filled with this prayer of crying out to God. Lament gives form and voice to our grief, a space to wail and name what is not right in the world in the context of prayer.

The Protestant theologian Walter Brueggemann writes about the need for lament in his book The Prophetic Imagination. He says that people can only dare to envision a new reality when they've been able to grieve, to scream out, to let loose the cry that has been stuck in their throats for so long. That cry, the expression of that grief, says Brueggemann, "is the most visceral announcement that things are not right." Only then can we begin to "to nurture, nourish, and evoke a new consciousness," a new vision. We so desperately need a new way of seeing the world.