praying with the right side of your brain: a meditation for ash wednesday

It was the 25th Anniversary of the ordination of the first Lutheran woman and we had been invited to the Lutheran Seminary in Germantown to help them mark the occasion. Back then, I was singing with the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir — a choir of 50 diverse women united in their belief that music could be a vehicle for social change.

At the time, our son Samuel was three-and-a half-years old and, being three-and-a -half years old, he did not usually join me at concerts. But this particular night was different, and Sam took the opportunity to give me a lesson in life and theology.

On the way home from the concert, journeying through the silence and the dark night together, Sam asked me a question from his car seat in the back:

“Mommy, did somebody die?”

I quickly scanned my mental files, trying to recall any thread, any piece of information that Sam might have received that night which would trigger such a question. And then I remembered the introduction to a piece we sang called, “Living in Wartime.” It was a song written by the composer Michael Callen. The song is about AIDS – and Michael had died of AIDS several years before after living with the disease for over ten years.

I answered my son, “Do you mean the person who wrote the song?”

“Yes,” was Sam’s answer. “Why did he die, Mommy?”

“Because he had a disease that, if you get it, it means you’ll die.”

And then there was a long and thoughtful pause.

“Is Daddy going to die?”

“Yes. But hopefully not for a long, long time.”

“When I’m a Daddy, will Daddy die?”

“After you’re a Daddy, and Daddy becomes a Grandpa, and a long time after that.”

“Are you going to die Mommy?”

“Yes.”

“Am I going to die Mommy?”

“Yes, Sam-man. But not for a very long time; not until after you grow all the way up and become a Daddy and grow to be a Grandpa, and grow way older than Grandpa is now.”

There was another long and thoughtful pause from the back seat.

“Hmmm. This is serious” Sam said.

“Mommy, I don’t know how to die.”

And after another pause.

“Huh. I guess I’m going to have to learn how to die.”

And Mommy said, trying to navigate through the veil of darkness and wonder that surrounded us, “That’s something that we all need to learn how to do, hun-bun.”

Maybe it’s because our Lenten Art Project is guaranteed to bring out the child in all of us. Or maybe it’s because we are entering a season that invites us to ask all the hardest questions. Or maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I am thinking more and more about the past. Whatever the reason, my son’s words from his car seat in the dark of night came back to me as I pondered what I could possibly say to you on this solemn and peculiar occasion we call Ash Wednesday.  Sam was right: this is serious. He was also right that dying is something that needs to be learned.

So what are we doing here tonight? What’s the whole point of this Ash Wednesday thing anyway? Well, the truth is – we’re doing the very thing that Sam said we needed to do. We’re cozying up to death – our own death – like it or not, ready or not. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminding ourselves – in a very public and symbolic way – that we are mortal; that this mortal body will perish.

We have George Klein to thank for the ashes. These are the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday – gathered up, set on fire, and burnt until they’re nothing but a black, gritty dust. That’s the Church’s tradition all over the world. Then, the pastors smear those cinders on the hands and foreheads of the faithful in the shape of a black cross, saying: “Remember: you are dust and to dust you shall return.”[1] It’s an interesting practice, don’t you think? It’s an interesting ritual: to take the palms and burn them and use them to remind us of our mortality.

My husband once told me that he doesn’t really know what to say when he comes forward for the ashes and hears, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Being the polite man that he is, most of the time he says “thank you.” But, the truth is, he’s not really feeling “thank you.” It’s hard to be reminded that we are dust; it’s hard to be reminded that we will die. Sam was right: this is serious. He was also right: dying is something that needs to be learned.

Ritual is a powerful thing. Ritual makes visible something that is invisible. Ritual makes physical what is in fact a spiritual process. Ritual is the soul’s way of beginning the process of transformation.[2]

Tonight we gather to share in a very peculiar ritual: to have ashes smeared on our foreheads; to remember that we are dust; to come to terms that this body which we inhabit will not last forever; that we are mortal. It’s serious; and it’s something we all need to learn.

Why do we do it? We do it because it works. We do it because it speaks to a part of our soul that words alone cannot. We do it because it moves us to a place in our spirit that logic alone cannot address. We do it because we are lonely and broken and deeply flawed creatures and that is what Ash Wednesday is all about. It’s about standing at the foot of the cross, smeared in dirt, remembering that we are – every one of us – in desperate need of a Savior.

Sam was right: this is serious. Beloved in Christ, it’s time to get busy.

[1] Debbie Blue, “Food for Worms,” Sensual Orthodoxy, (St. Paul: Cathedral Hill Press, 2004) 89.

[2] Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2003), 15.

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