I'll admit it. I'm excited. I love Ash Wednesday. I have always loved Ash Wednesday.
On Sunday we'll make a bonfire of dried palm branches, which we blessed and carried in procession last Palm Sunday. And, yes, I do love a good fire. But that isn't all.
On Wednesday we will use the ashes from the incinerated palm branches to trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads and hear the words "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
It is a grave and tender blessing. This same cross was traced on our foreheads at baptism as a sign of God's indelible loving claim on our lives, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ's own, forever." On Ash Wednesday we remember that promise, and with it this truth: "You are beloved. And you are only human. You are not perfect. You are not immortal. Yet even in your imperfection and mortality; even in sin and in death; you are beloved; you are God's own."
The other day I was teaching my weekly Music Together class for young children and their parents. As we do every class, we turned down the lights for a closing lullaby song, then as the lullaby ended I intoned the words:
In the beginning, the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep
and God said
At that moment, my 8 year old assistant, Lucia, flipped on the lights and I looked around the circle of children with wonder and delight and said:
And God saw that the light was good.
And God saw that EVERYTHING God made was good.
Then looking at each child around the circle in turn, beaming with love, I continued:
And God saw that you...and you...and you...and you...
are good, and good, and very good.
At which point my young friend (we'll call him "K") exclaimed VERY loudly, and without missing a beat:
"Mother Sylvia, I hitted Savannah at school today!"
This impulse, this NEED to honestly confess our human failings is deeply embedded in our human spirit. My young friend's spontaneous confession is a perfect example. "K" needed to tell the truth about his failing. He needed me to witness that truth. And he needed me to assure him of his belovedness, in spite of--in light of--that truth.
I replied with great seriousness.
"That happens. Even though we are good, and good, and very good,
sometimes we still make bad choices.
It's hard. But it happens to all of us.
And when it happens, when we make bad choices,
we can always say we're sorry, and we can always try to make it right."
"K" is not yet four years old. He cannot yet read the Book of Common Prayer or pontificate on the intricacies of holy orders. But even in the middle of music class, "K" knows that I am, above all, his priest. And somehow, in his tender young heart, "K" knows exactly what a priest is for. A priest is for hearing confessions. A priest is for pronouncing God's blessing and absolution.
Ash Wednesday isn't about shame and unworthiness. Ash Wednesday is about the radiantly beautiful, breathtakingly fragile, and sometimes crushingly disappointing TRUTH of our existence. God made us human, but we are not God. God made us good, but we are not perfect. This is the Good News: that even in the light of our worst mortal failings: We are seen. We are heard. We are known. And WE ARE LOVED.
My name is Sylvia Miller-Mutia, and I am a priest in the Episcopal Church. I have recently accepted an exciting call to serve as assisting clergy at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Albuquerque, NM with a focus on outreach, evangelism, and family ministry. I continue serving as "priest at large" for the larger church and wider world, assisting the people of God in whatever ways I can, and developing new resources for spiritual formation to share. Prior to my current call, I served as Rector (aka Pastor) of St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Albuquerque, NM (2015-2018), Assistant Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, CA (2010-2015) and Pastoral Associate for Youth & Families at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Belvedere, CA (2002-2009). I am married to Donnel (grief counselor, couples coach, artist, best dad ever), and we have three awesome kids, ranging in age from 8-14.