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Ashes and Minor Keys

February 21, 2015

DSC_5071Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;

According to your great complassion, blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my inquity and cleanse me from my sin.


Of all the Holy days leading up to Easter, Ash Wednesday is my favorite.  The church, even at the noon service, is somber, quiet, and dark.  The hymns are often on the slow side and in a minor key.  I know it’s bit odd for my favorite service to remind me that I came from dust and will return to dust, but there is something reassuring about that.

I didn’t make it to church yesterday.

I struggled to figure out how to make it work.  Maybe a sitter for the boys so I could go while Curtis did the soccer carpool?  Then baseball practice was scheduled for that evening as well and I simply gave up.

For I know my transgressions and my sin is always before me. 

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.

For Christmas, I received Sara Miles’s new book, City of God.  I eagerly read her book in January.  Miles describes in her book the development of their church’s Ash Wednesday outreach.  In late afternoon and early evening, Miles and others from her Episcopalian church head to the streets of the Mission district with ashes, to remind those who couldn’t make it to church that they would return to dust.

I was fascinated by their outreach, but at the same time questioned it.  Could ashes be given without a proper reading of Psalm 51?  Would the lack of somber hymns in minor keys diminish the meaning of the ashes?  Would the people really know what the ashes meant without a pastor to explain it to them?  How much of my Ash Wednesday experience that I loved was simply made up of fluff, instead of what really mattered?  What really did matter on Ash Wednesday—the administering of ashes or the church service surrounding it?  I wasn’t sure.  Was it simply a show?  Did you need to be a card carrying church member to get the ashes?

I didn’t make it to church for Ash Wednesday.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.

On Wednesday, I checked out Micha Boyett’s, one of my favorite occasional bloggers, blog.  She had a repost for Ash Wednesday about an Ash Wednesday that didn’t quite go as planned a few years ago.  While that year, she did make it church, minus her husband, she remembered a year in which she didn’t.  Her husband was out of town and with two small boys, church just wasn’t going to happen.  Instead, she burned some leaves in the backyard and marked herself, stating the words to herself.  Her preschool aged son noticed and wanted the ashes as well, so she marked him, too.DSC_5082

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.

It was bedtime before Curtis and I had a chance to check in with each other.  He hadn’t made it to church either.  We both lamented the fact that less than three hours were left in Ash Wednesday and we missed being marked with the cross, with a reminder of our humanity and our need for God.  We had talked about our Lenten practices for this year in passing earlier (at supper maybe? Or was it when we were filling up water bottles for practices?) and decided to read a Psalm together.

Curtis read aloud Psalm 51, the one I remembered being used at every Ash Wednesday service I’ve ever been to.  After he finished, I leaned over to him.  “Curtis, from dust you came and to dust you will return.”  Lacking ashes and being a little bit shy for some reason, I skipped marking his head with a cross.  He looked at me in the eyes.  “Melani, from dust you came and to dust you will return,” he replied as he made a cross on my forehead.

Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.

I didn’t make it to church for Ash Wednesday service.

Church happened in my house, without a pastor and without somber hymns in minor keys.  We remembered together where we came from and our ultimate end in the reading of Psalm 51 and simple words said over each other.

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.

Italics are selected verses from Psalms 51

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