Ash Wednesday, and each person kneeling in front of me is not kneeling before me. They are kneeling before God. I move from left to right as though reading, marking the forehead of each person, young and old, with the ashen sign of the cross. Palm Sunday ashes, and the cross represents the baptism cross with chrism. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
Not every kneeling person is consciously penitent. Not every person attending Ash Wednesday services feels an acute need to apologize to God on that particular day. Instead, kneeling penitentially on Ash Wednesday is a spiritual practice of penitence that comprehends sins past, present and future. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and have done those things which we ought not to have done … (MPI)
“Things.” The word is over-used and denies precision. In this context, however, things seems to represent behavior rooted primarily in the way we treat others, or fail to treat others. And, although I may not feel particularly repentant today, there will come a day in the future, or there has been a day in the past, when I have needed or will need to appropriate Ash Wednesday repentance. Next week, or next month? Last October, or last July? All of the above? There is no health in us, the 1559 prayer book concludes, and this structural defect is precisely why I present myself today as penitent. I hope to recover a health that is rooted in a timeless grace.
The concept that grace is timeless is immutable. The psalmist wrote, Give thanks to the Lord, for his mercy endures forever, (Ps. 118), and then he or she listed practical ways in which God’s mercy has been shown to be both good and forever enduring.
Again, timeless grace. Forever. As though God’s mercy precedes (and it does) my actions of sin, my state of sin, and my repentance. God’s healing mercy enshrouds me, before and after, just like it does for those people kneeling in front of me before God. Just like it does for you.
In his marvelous little book, The Order of Time, physicist Carlo Rovelli describes the two classical ways in which time has been analyzed, Newtonian and Aristotilian. The first is the way most of us understand time, by the ticking of the clock in which each second follows the one before it, orderly and without end or interruption. The second treats time as existing only in relativity, in the way events relate one to another, as the measure between or among objects changing.
Rovelli concludes poetically, or is it spiritually?, quoting Buddha. Everything must begin and everything must end, which means change is both constant and a catalyst for suffering. To be more precise, our perception of change is what causes the suffering – our memory of the past and our expectation of the future. (p. 190) “We long for timelessness, we endure the passing of time: we suffer time. Time is suffering.”
Which is not to say that suffering is time. Some types of suffering, though not independent of time, exist beyond the bounds of time: pain, hunger, power exercised by one person over and against another.
What is not time-bound, what appears as eternal, is grace.
Which is why I mark the forehead of first person, and then the next, with the ashen cross, the cross that marked your beginning as Christ’s own forever, and today marks your death, You are dust and to dust you shall return. The cycle of life, all in one, baptism and burial. But ever-present within these seemingly oppositional proclamations is not just human birth and death, but divine resurrection. The cross. The promise of life beyond the grave is a promise that existed from the beginning. Even before the man and the woman were ejected from the garden there was a glimmer of grace.
I look ahead to see the next person waiting to receive the grace of ashes. It is a child, which makes me start. It seems incongruous and even cruel to curse a child with the sign of death. I begin to choke-up. To tear-up.
But then, I recall the timeless circle of grace, that I was redeemed at the beginning, before I was born, and so was she, at the foundation of the world, long before either of us sinned. The Son of God, crucified, dead, and resurrected alive at the foundation. Which means I was, as was this child, born to live. Timelesss