Ancient people put on ashes and sackcloth to accompany their grief. To honor the loved one and mark the loss, a person smeared a bit of charcoal on his head in the days following a death, and she wore what came to be known as “widow’s weeds” for months or a year. The ritual of altered dress or behavior marked outwardly an inner journey, setting them apart physically to help the individual and the community navigate what was happening spiritually: from death back to life and the new normal, from brokenness to healing, from disruption to wholeness.
By extension, sackcloth and ashes were used to mark any devastating loss: a flood or famine or being overrun by enemy soldiers, and individuals and communities were admonished to mark repentance in this way, too. Mourning was honored as an essential rite of passage. When someone or something, even a way of life, has died, individuals and communities are well-served to acknowledge what needs to be put down, as a way to prepare for what will be picked up, when its time has come.
You also see this invitation to put on a whole new mind in the story of Jonah and the Ninevites, or in the Israelites’ journey away from Pharaoh and toward freedom, or in the inhabitants of Jerusalem pouring out of the city to encounter John the Baptist in the wilderness. “We want to get right with God, and with our neighbors, and with ourselves,” they said, “so we will lose our bad habits and take on some good ones.”
That is what we are up to throughout the season of Lent, if we are willing to take on the discipline. We construct a meaningful drama of the wilderness for ourselves—simpler food, distinctive ways to dress, a change in our daily routine, taking on a discipline of study, taking time for silence and prayer and listening to the still small voice that is God, who speaks from the very deepest part of ourselves and through our engagement with others—and in that drama, to act out our portion of repentance.
Yesterday I spent an hour with a group of old and new friends at Blakehurst in an extraordinary conversation. At one point I asked them if they would go into the wilderness of Lent, like those folks running out to see John the Baptist, to repent. “Nope,” said one plucky 80-year-old. “Fair enough,” I said, “so what would motivate you to dig into a “wilderness” practice, to put on “sackcloth and ashes” in order to discover? What do you want badly enough that you would change your behavior to achieve it?” Their poignant responses came tumbling out: to experience forgiveness, to be reconciled to my daughter, to mend a broken relationship with an old friend, to love in a bigger way, to feel worthy, to reconnect with my brother, to feel loved again after the death of my spouse, to help my children respect each other.
Amen. Such honesty is the core of turning from death to life, the necessary step of articulating one’s experience of and participation in brokenness that enables something like resurrection to begin. Lent is an invitation to wholeness, but we have to walk through the wilderness to get there.
Redeemer is offering a number of opportunities to strengthen your practice: VOICES speaker series and simple supper on Wednesdays, Lent-to-go site visits each week, contemplative prayer, sung compline, all-parish read, Taize. Choose what makes the most sense for you, and welcome to the journey.