Total Eclipse of the Heart: Ash Wednesday
Years before we were married, when my husband Seth was a fool in love proclaiming things like, “Maybe I’ll become a vegetarian,” I made him the ultimate chocolate cake for Valentines Day. The “Total Chocolate Eclipse” recipe boasted “the rich flavor of chocolate eclipses the fact that no eggs, butter, or refined sugars” are used in its making. The sweetness came from dates, the frosting was made of cashews blended with tofu and maple syrup. I spent hours whipping up this cake. When we finally sat down to eat it, I asked, “Well, what do you think?” “Pretty good,” he said, “but I wish you would have just bought a cake and spent that time with me.”
Growing up, my parents were into the notion that we all have different love languages. Doing things for others—perhaps that describes someone you know. They rarely use words to show love, but will spend hours doing something for you that needs to get done. Or maybe a friend's love language is affirmation--love given and received through words. You get the picture. We often love others the way that we desire to be loved. I can’t think of a more romantic Valentine than a home-made chocolate cake with cashew frosting. But Seth’s love language is definitely not sugar-free. We sometimes fail to hear the true love language of the other. And so we miss the mark.
In the book of Isaiah God's people ask, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” Like an irritable lover, they quarrel with God, defending their religiosity. God answers, “Look, you fast to serve your own interests—to oppress your workers…This is the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free. To share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your house; to cover the naked.”
Lent is a time when we learn God’s love language. Just as Jesus wandered in the wilderness for 40 days, so we will journey for 40 days into our own interior wilderness, wrestling with whatever it is that displaces God in our heart of hearts. Today we cross the threshold into the season that asks us to examine ourselves, to acknowledge the suffering of the world and the frailty of human living. The journey begins as many of us receive ashes on our foreheads and hear the words, “From dust you come, and to dust you shall return.”
The common spiritual practices of Lent are fasting, prayer, and reading Scripture. We do these things not to be good—we all stand equally in need of God’s grace. We do them to draw nearer to God.
Fasting: In the auto-biography of inventor William Komkwamba, he describes how winter was called “the hungry season” when he grew up in Malawi. If the previous year’s crop had been decimated by drought, they ran out of food in the hungry season. In William’s family, they rationed food by eating only twice a day. His mother would tell them to trick their tummies with water. One bad year, William recalls his mother nursing his youngest sister, her hands shaking as she willingly gave precious calories to her child. We fast during Lent in solidarity with those around the world who do not have enough to eat, and those in our own communities who struggle to put food on the table. We fast, not just from food, but from social media, or television, or spending. We fast because it creates a vacuum in which we can instead focus on God.
Fasting and prayer: Make no mistake, there will be plenty to bombard you during these 40 days, insisting you don’t have time for prayer. You will always have somewhere else to be than down on your knees in the presence of God. And that is why we make an intentional commitment to prayer during Lent. We pray, because people we love courageously wrestle with the underside of life—illness and mortality, depression and anxiety, addiction and childhood trauma, grief and loss. We pray, because it changes us. We pray, because we desperately need to carve out silence, reorient our hearts toward grace, and offer up gratitude.
Fasting, prayer, and Scripture reading: There’s a true story about a rabbi who survived a Nazi death camp. One day when he returned from hard labor, he saw a guard eating a sandwich wrapped in paper with Hebrew writing. The Rabbi and other prisoners traded a day’s worth of food for this piece of stained paper. When it dried out, it was a page of Scripture. You see, the Nazis would often use the Hebrew Scripture in profane ways. But the men in the Rabbi’s bunker gathered around that dried out piece of Scripture every night. They read it together over and over. It saved their lives. It made them feel human again and reminded them of their place in a story that extended back to their ancestors, a story that would not die with them. We too read Scripture to remember our humanity and our place in the wider story of God’s people. Jewish wisdom says, “Delve into the Torah…for everything is in it; grow old and gray over it, for you can have no better portion" (Ben Bag Bag).
This Lenten season invites us to transform our lives, to learn God’s love language by fasting, prayer, and reading Scripture. The good news is we do not do it alone. We do it with people all over the world who gather to worship God and confess their brokenness.
Once Jesus stopped the bickering disciples dead in their self-righteous tracks by embracing a child. You may recall his words: “Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes me.” One of the great temptations of spiritual practice is to feed our sense of superiority. To feel, somehow, justified by our good deeds rather than grovel in the dust of our sin and brokenness. And so Jesus reminds us: it’s really about welcoming the most vulnerable. Because when we do that, we welcome Jesus. And when we welcome Jesus, we welcome the God who sent him. So be reminded today—our spiritual practice is not to make us great. It is to clear space so that we might welcome the most vulnerable, even the small child within ourselves. We practice so we can welcome. We practice so we can see Jesus and draw nearer to God.
Poet Jan Richardson writes that to receive the blessing of Ash Wednesday,
"all you have to do is let your heart break. Let it crack open. Let it fall apart so that you can see its secret chambers, the hidden spaces where you have hesitated to go.
Your entire life is here, inscribed whole upon your heart’s walls: every path taken or left behind, every face you turned toward or turned away, every word spoken in love or in rage, every line of your life you would prefer to leave in shadow, every story that shimmers with treasures known and those you have yet to find.
It could take you days to wander these rooms. Forty, at least.
And so let this be a season for wandering for trusting the breaking for tracing the tear that will return you
to the One who waits who watches who works within the rending to make your heart whole."
May it be so with you this season.