I love night church. There’s something about gathering together in the sanctuary when its dark outside that makes worship feel more holy. The most ordinary tasks–lighting candles, making music, sharing communion feel like a sacred act of protest, a witness to otherwise, light overcoming the darkness. Outside is darkness and cold and separation, but inside we are surrounded by light and warmth and hope.
I love night church, but I always dread Ash Wednesday. We gather at night then, to mark the beginning of our journey through Lent to Easter. And on that night, it feels like we invite the darkness inside. We all know that this journey ends at the cross. We’re on our way to witness the brutal violent destruction of the body of our Lord. Worse yet, the liturgy forces us to remember that our sinfulness is part of that destruction. All the petty turning away from God that we rationalize and justify so easily in the bright sunlight on a Sunday morning is exposed for what it is—the power that nailed Christ to the cross. It’s not out there, in them, but hidden in my own heart.
And then it is my job to take ashes mixed with oil, mark the forehead of everyone in worship with the sign of the cross and tell them that they are going to die. ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return,’ I say. I say it to the women who knitted hats and blankets for my babies. I say it to the men who run basketball and soccer leagues for neighborhood kids. I say it to the children I baptized. I say it to the people struggling with depression and cancer and kidney failure, people who are fighting for their lives. I say it to my own daughters. And then I turn and bow my head and someone says it to me.
On this night we gather not to dispel or deny the darkness of sin and death, but to behold it. No matter how much we love God and God loves us, someday this only life we know will be over. Ash Wednesday leaves us with no illusions. No matter how much we love God and God loves us, the power that nailed Jesus to the cross is not foreign to us. Sin dwells within my heart—real sin that really matters. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we cannot outrun, outpray, outworship, outserve our sin-stained mortality.
I don’t love Ash Wednesday. I don’t like the way it makes me feel. But I need this true and holy night, it makes me see how desperately I need a savior.
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