Ash Wednesday


You were unprepared.

Chagrined, you look up the local Episcopal church website and discover the evening service is at 5:30 PM. Call your husband to see if he can stay home with your two-year-old daughter. You want to go alone.

Drive through the snow-packed streets to the stately stone building. You swing open the heavy oak doors and slip into the church. An elderly gentleman in the foyer hands you a bulletin as you enter the dark sanctuary, the stained glass glowing like a lit lantern. Your body slides onto a hard pew towards the back, the floorboards creaking under your feet. Tasteful mandolin and guitar chords strum the first lines of "What Wondrous Love is This." The congregation sings heartily, the familiar notes soaring then falling.

It has been years since you last attended a liturgical service. Stand up, sit down. You stumble through the "Thanks be to God"s and "Glory to you Lord Christ"s, yet it feels good to be here.

The scriptures are read. Raving mad prophets, gentle Psalms. Everyone stands when the Gospel is carried to the center of the church. The priest reads the voice of Jesus, his Sermon on the Mount. You listen, believing and unbelieving. You are so thirsty.

She preaches a homily, words on ashes and death, about reconciliation to God and our neighbors. The person next to you pulls down the red velvety kneeler with a loud thwack and together you confess your sins. When it’s your turn, you come forward to receive ashes on your forehead in the sign of the cross. The sight of dark smudged foreheads in the congregation startles you when you turn around. You, too, bear that sign.


Nothing stirs you, but you are glad you came. You rifle through the bulletin and check the time, wondering about what is happening at home. Communion is next.

You can’t remember the last time you took Communion. The tiny Mennonite church you attend now rarely offers the sacrament. In your high church days it was the service's climax, the one thing required of you each and every Sunday. Can I take this cup? Can I eat this bread?

The priest prepares the table and launches into the familiar liturgy, the Great Thanksgiving: The Lord be with you. And also with you. We lift up our hearts. We lift them to the Lord.

Your attention drifts during the long liturgy describing the Last Supper. But you snap back to present when the priest invites you back to the table, saying:

This is the table, not of the Church, but of God.
 It is to be made ready for those who love God
 and who want to love God more.

So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
 you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time, 
you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
 Come, not because I invite you: it is God, and it is God’s will 
that you who want God should meet God here.

And that’s when it all hits you, the burning behind your eyes and sharp twinges in your nose. You give in and let the hot tears fall. You who have little, you who have failed, you who are woefully unprepared.

You walk forward and take what is yours, that bread dipped in wine.

*Photos by LifeCreations and  The Cleveland Kid, Creative Commons via Flickr