Well-worn, chestnut-coloured floorboards creak beneath the many feet entering the hushed room. A reverent quiet is—mostly—kept, it is a time of preparation for the special yearly observance. My friend and I arrive early, a rarity for me, to settle our hearts and minds for the Ash Wednesday service. Yet my mind is awhirl, reflecting on the day's conversations, expectations, frustrations, and disappointments. In spite of outward tranquility, my thoughts are uneasy.
Without sound or ceremony, the clergy and chalice bearers file down the centre aisle. We stand until the vicar invites us to pray the Lenten collect. Then, kneeling before the King of all things, we seek to know that our sin is costly. Only the life-blood of God's own Son could buy us back from death, the paycheck of our sin. My heart sought to stay focussed, prodding my mind to read along, if listening alone was not enough.
The Epistle reading proclaimed that unfathomable paradox, that God "made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him"1, a text that baffles both my mind and heart most days. This evening, though, I read the familiar words wanting to be moved, expecting life, yet being disappointed in my expectation. God's word is not something I can use to contrive an emotional experience, thankfully. Only His Spirit at work in my heart and mind can bring truth alive. As I rose with my row to receive the imposition of ashes, I knew that I needed to be emptied of myself and my own chaotic thoughts.
Sweet-smelling charred palm dust smudged thumb and forehead. A cross marked upon my brow, as I knelt and heard the familiar words, "Remember that thou art but dust, and to dust thou shalt return." The service continued, but I found my mind coming back to my frailty. I am but dust? How can this be, when my body is the hale and healthy flesh of one just entering their thirties? Yet, I am not deceived by my feelings of immortality. Hiking in dangerous places and sliding on ice have both punctured my security at times. The recent, unexpected loss of a family friend in her early twenties reminds me that the breath in my lungs is always a gift.
I am fragile. This realisation makes me both afraid and angry. I don't want to be frail. I rebel at being made of clay, the "poor potsherd, patch, matchwood"2 that I am. I am the thing formed irritably asking my Maker, "Why have you made me like this?"3 God fashioned me to need things—from food and sleep, to intimate relationships and love. I wonder if my needs make me frail. No, sin makes me breakable—my needs make me vulnerable, open to depending on God and others, rather than only myself.
My fears of the unknown, the uncertainties haunting my thoughts, the turmoil of my whole day led me to cry out from my knees, "I am flying to pieces, God! Hold me together." The tiny sting of communion wine on my tongue turned my heart to God's reply, "I have fashioned you to be a chalice to bear me." Here I was asking God to hold me together—that my fragments would not turn to wounding shrapnel—and His response was to tell me, the thing formed, that I was to hold Him! This is the mystery, that the Maker inhabits the made—or maid, in the case of Mary. The Potter clothed Himself in clay. The ones who need to be held together by God will be made to hold God.
I walked out into the darkness of evening unafraid, because the Light Himself dwelt in me. My foaming thoughts were not immediately quelled, the questions inside were not somehow answered. Still, I wrestle with my flesh, with distractions and restlessness, with fear and uncertainty, with a complaining tongue and a heart of stone. Daily, I must ask to be emptied of myself and to be held together by God, that I might be filled—like a chalice of Eucharistic wine—with the Holy Spirit. This is the purpose the Maker has for the thing made—whether I am a clay pot or a silver chalice—to hold Him as He holds us together.
1. II Corinthians 5:21 (NKJV)
2. Hopkins, Gerard Manley, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire” Selected Poems and Prose (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1982) 66
3. Romans 9:20b (NKJV)
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson.