Reflection on Ash Wednesday 2023
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
February 22, 2023
Steven Young was an Asian studies PhD student from southern CA who, in 1969, showed up in the mountains of southern Japan during wintertime. He wanted to train as a Buddhist monk. At first, the abbot would not let him. Young was persistent, and eventually, he was given permission to begin the 100-day solo retreat – which really was the first step on the true monastic journey.
These 100 days were spent in an unheated hut where Young was required to do a 3x-a-day purification ritual, which consisted of dumping a few gallons of melted snow over his body. “It’s so cold,” he would later say, “that the water freezes the moment it touches the floor, and your towel freezes in your hand. So you’re sliding around barefoot on ice, trying to dry your body with a frozen hand towel.”
An Ash Wednesday service may not be near-frozen water poured over our bodies, but I do wonder if – for some – it invites a similar reaction. A space where we name so clearly our failings, name so clearly or mortality with ashes on the forehead……it can be uncomfortable, a cold shower of sorts that we’d usually prefer to avoid.
Indeed, Steve Young himself said – at first – he thought the best way to endure these cold showers was to think of something else, anything else. He would distract his mind with all kinds of distant place or people or just escape the moment in any way available. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal…” We know this is probably good wisdom, but I wonder if part of why we sometimes cannot help but consume our time with consumption and stuff and technology rabbit holes…is because – honestly, we want to be distracted.
There’s a lot of hard stuff out there, in here, and of course…the very fact of our mortality which we rarely bring up in polite company or otherwise…there is something tempting about constant distraction. Except for this year…this year I’ve been wondering if maybe something is different. A couple of things come to mind…
I’m mindful, for instance, of an app that if you download it, five random times a day your device will buzz with this message: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” The name of the app is WeCroak. It may sound initially really morbid, but actually, it’s born out of a tradition that goes back thousands of years and can be found in the Bible. Ecclesiastes: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every person; the living should take this to heart.” Psalm 90: “Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. It’s this ancient idea that confronting – not distracting from – but confronting our mortality is a desirable cold shower chock full of wisdom. It’s an app, by the way, that has been written about in a lot of major publications and is fairly popular. What is that about?
Or again, I think of this NY Times Bestseller that came out in 2021 and has nearly 7000 Amazon reviews, most of them glowing…it’s called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Oh yeah – who couldn’t use better time management? Help us focus on things we really want to do and care about and not get overwhelmed by all the craziness and to-do lists? What’s the key here? And how is the idea of 4000 weeks central to all of this? First paragraph: “Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks of life.” And the book goes on to explain that recognizing the finitude of our time on earth and the profound lack of control we have over that… that no matter what age we find ourselves at, that remains fundamental starting place for meaningfully changing our approach to time and priorities. Which is to say….Rather than act like we’ll just spend our years forever on this earth and we’ll surely become the person and people we want and plan to be in these years…embrace the cold shower truth about the brevity of days. The popularity of WeCroak and this 4000 weeks book – they are signs to me that, more and more, there is a part of our society that is tiring of the empty promise of distractions and actually…welcomes the wisdom that begins to be known when recognizing our limitations and lack of control.
A people for whom a service of ashes is not merely a morbid thing to avoid…but somehow……maybe the honesty of it all is invigorating.…maybe there is something to this idea that naming our ashy truth is the starting place for living life and life to the full, as Jesus put it.A life of “storing up treasures in heaven,” as Jesus speaks of in ourpassage.
You know what Steve Young (who is now a meditation teacher who goes by the name Shinzen Young) discovered when pouring freezing water over his head day by day? He realized the more he focused on the intense sensation of the water, the less agonizing the whole thing. Actually, he started to find a kind of freedom in accepting and going right toward the cold. And the thing that began to make this freezing shower harder again? Anytime he let his mind wander to distraction. If you choose to come forward for ashes, the cold shower is poured clearly:
“From dust you came, to dust you shall return.”
And there is a freedom in naming this. However, it is not only because we are being honest with one another about our mortality. It is also because we are being fully honest with one another about who we are in God. Because remember, we mark the ashes in the shape of a cross. The cross reminds us of the One who made us from dust and became dust for us and descended to the depths of dust…and rose from the dust and conquered the worst we will ever face. The cross reminds us that our finitude is held in God’s eternal love which is stronger than death. The cross reminds us that no matter how feeble or frail or failing our offerings on this earth have been… no matter how dusty the truths about ourselves that we bring… …all of it is held in the power of One who raises the very worst to life.
What’s the dust from which we typical avoid or distract ourselves? What if, this night, we let ourselves name clearly the dust and receive clearly the truth about the cross-shaped love that somehow always raises the finite and the failings to new life?