“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again , come , come.”
These words are attributed to the 13th century Sufi mystic poet-philosopher Rumi.
I found out later that there are variant forms of this: some say “whoever you are…wonderer, worshiper, lover of leaving” and others say “wanderer.” I say this invitation to come, come, whoever you are…even if you have broken your vows a thousand times” applies on this day to all of us, whether we are wonderers or wanderers. I say it applies to all of us even—or perhaps especially—the most scrupulous among us who haven’t broken vows a thousand times. This day gives each one of us an invitation.
In my first year at St. Paul’s on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday someone came up to me and said: “Mother Sara, we just want to be sure you know we like our ash crosses to be really big and really dark.”
This is a good thing. There’s a lot in this cross that we make on our foreheads on this day and so I say, the bigger the better.
This mark that we make on this day is about saying yes, about turning and returning to the deep, full life that God intends for us. It is not about public piety or disfigurement, it is about saying yes to our God-given humanity. This mark reminds us of our baptism, when we were anointed with oil—hopefully also a lot of it—in the sign of the cross with the words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Forever.
This mark that we make on this day says that we are not afraid of wretchedness, either our own or the wretchedness of the world around us. This is a hard one. I confess to being someone who avoids the news and as a result sometimes feels like a bad citizen, woefully uninformed. Someone like me might do well, during the journey we begin on this day, to take on a discipline of following those stories I can’t stand and seek out bright lights, glimmers of the Kingdom of God. As we make our way with Jesus to suffering and death on the cross, Lent means looking misery in the face, without fear, but not without hope. Lent means fasting from despair and hopelessness.
This mark that we make on this day says we are not afraid to face our own mortality—our dusty nature. Or, if we are afraid, this mark says we will face our fears. The mark that we make on this day says that we know we are wholly dependent upon God’s goodness and mercy. It says that we partake, with St. Paul, in the work of servants of God, in endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, sleepless nights, hunger, and also purity, patience, kindness, love, truth, and the power of God. These are all in the fullness God intends for us.
The ashes on our foreheads when we leave this place are the sign of a holy fast, not the kind of fast that makes you look dismal— which means you need to think twice before giving up those chocolates—I’m talking about the kind of fast Isaiah proclaims: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house? Let this be our holy fast.
This mark that we make on this day is a sign of the new and contrite heart we beg God to create in us, new and contrite hearts wrapped around those treasures moths cannot consume and thieves cannot steal, the treasure of journey and renewal, the treasure of a heart that beats to the rhythm of our own daily and weekly turning and returning, the holy meal we share at this table week after week, our life of common prayer, all of our comings and our goings, again and again. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, come, whoever you are.