One of the rooms that stands out in my memory from childhood was the kitchen pantry. It was a small room that was accessed from the kitchen — like a very big walk-in closet you see in newer homes off the master bedroom. When you walked in the pantry in my childhood home, shelving lined the side walls from floor to nine-foot ceiling.
It wasn’t a room that I often went into. It was rather cool and dark inside, for one thing. The flooring was old and the tiles were curled at the edges. The light switch was a string tied to the a ceiling light bulb, giving off a dingy feel. Once I hid there playing hide-and-seek with my brother; and scared myself sitting in the dark corner on the floor when I leaned into a spider web.
It certainly wasn’t a room whose purpose was to show off to company, even friends. This room was not designed for entertaining. In showing this house for sale, this would be the last place you’d consider “staging” for viewings.
And yet, I considered this room a treasure trove. Because lining the shelves were cans and packages and bags of all kinds of food. And lots of this good stuff that my Mother would convert to very tasty home-made cooking. I revered this room because it had a sole purpose — to store and keep this precious food. And food was something so closely related to the health and well-being of our family. Not a very attractive place. But in many vital ways the heart and soul of our home.
So it is with our hearts — a place often considered as the center of our being. We get to the “heart of the matter” when we arrive at the truth, the essential, what is most important in our lives, who we really are.
Getting at the essential element of our faith is a task that didn’t seem urgent some decades ago when Christianity was pretty well assumed in our culture and “everyone went to church”.
But today, Christians are struggling more and more to discover- re-discover, maybe – what their faith is about and what is really important. To get to the heart of it. To understand who we are as a Christian community and as individuals of faith.
And we do so on Ash Wednesday by first getting to heart of being human. We experience a visceral reminder of our humanity when we feel ashes smudged on our foreheads. Because basically, essentially, our bodies are made up of carbon molecules, and “to dust we shall return”. Nothing like facing our mortality to focus our attention on what is most important in life.
But it’s not only about the ashes. The ashes are imposed in the sign of the cross. We learn to cross ourselves from a young age, in the church. We see professional football and baseball players cross themselves before making a play. We may do it, or at least think it, before going under for surgery, or before doing something scary. Tonight we ritualize the act of crossing ourselves with ashes. This is a good practice.
So, why do we cross ourselves with ashes?
Perhaps we do so in a false humility, which is really a sign of self-rejection. We may make the sign of the cross, or receive it on our foreheads as we do tonight, more out of self-demeaning inferiority.
As I said, “Remember you are dust…” slams home the reality of our definite and eventual mortality. While important to accept and not deny, does our mortality bind and trap us in patterns of unhealthy self-hate? Or can it point to new possibilities for life? Does this reminder of our mortality cement our negative self-regard that we are good for nothing? Or does it keep us grounded in the reality of God’s never-ending love for us? Do we literally cross ourselves into oblivion or into the freedom of God’s grace?
In the traditional Gospel text for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6,16-21), Jesus instructs his disciples to pray in their inner room, or closet. This holy place has been likened to our heart — the deep, inner self where God meets us ‘in secret’.
A more accurate description of this place, according to Laurence Freeman, is a root cellar; I imagine that pantry (because folks in Jesus’ day did not have private rooms in which they could close a door).
It may not be a place we normally spend much time in. And so Lent invites us at least to consider going there — to go to this place where we’re not always comfortable going: whether that means starting a new discipline of prayer, or intentionally taking on a new project, an exercise program, giving something up, spending time getting help, counsel. It’s a place that can scare us, make us feel vulnerable. That challenges us to face our greatest fear and confront our imperfections.
What is that ‘room’ in your life? Is it a place of shame, regret, pain, fear, in-healed memory? How often have you gone there? Can you?
And yet, paradoxically, therein lies our greatest treasure, that which sustains and heals us in life despite our imperfections. Saint Paul spoke of a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), and this was his perceived weakness. And yet, he used that ‘thorn’ to communicate the power and strength of God’s grace.
So much so that he wrote at length in his letter to the Corinthian church of the first century about the power of God being shown in human weakness, human limitation.
Normally we see our weakness and imperfection as reason for self rejection and denial. An embarrassment. A shame.
But the road to healing and wholeness is turning it around: by accepting those limitations and imperfections as precisely where Christ is present to us. Not denying that which causes us pain and suffering; not hiding from the “root cellar” in our hearts, but going there boldly as the place where Christ meets us, cobwebs and all, with his love and forgiveness.
This is the very definition of prayer, is it not? Not something we do self-consciously in front of others to show off and display our righteousness before the world. But a communion with God in precisely that place that shows our greatest weakness to the world. Therein lies the power of God.
Indeed, God’s grace is sufficient. The essential element of our faith, for Lutherans especially but for all Christians witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus, is God’s grace, God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s gift of Christ in us.