“Set your plow deeper” was our congregation’s theme for Lent some years ago. It was suggested by one of our members, a retired farmer named Marvin.
In years past, Marvin noted, most farmers plowed at the same depth every year. “The bottom of the plow compacts the soil beneath it, so that, over time, a thick crust forms, separating the plant roots from essential nutrients,” he explained. “To prevent this from happening, occasionally you need to set your plow deeper.”
Baptist-flavored, southern-accented folk of my generation didn’t do Lent in our formative years. If you heard that word spoken, the association was with what gathered in your navel upon wearing cotton t-shirts.
We I did, of course, hear the echo of Genesis 3:19 — “dust to dust” — pronounced at graveside services for the dearly departed. (Modern verses substitute or add “ashes to ashes.”)
My association with the phrase wasn’t a good one. Among my chores as a child was to “dust” the living room — a housekeeping necessity in West Texas, where dust storms were still a thing. That includes wiping each little piece of my Mom’s curio salt-and-pepper shaker collection.
She had dozens of affordable mementoes purchased on the many cut-rate, baloney-sandwich vacations we took, my sister and I sleeping in the back of a Ford station wagon, our parents in a tiny pop-up trailer. These were her travel memories, and she could name where each was purchased.
We didn’t need a designated time to “come under conviction” for sin which, like dust, finds its way around every closed door and shut window of our souls. We did that every Sunday with extra verses of “Just As I Am.”
It took me a good while to recover from the habit of cowering and whimpering within sight of the Lord’s table, which its injunction to “do this in remembrance of me.”
It took a while to shake off the notion of penitence as a form of self-abuse which is, in its own twisted way, another form of narcissism. Or, on the other hand, a get-out-of-jail-free card which, when combined with the incantation of “I’m so sorry … sorry, sorry, sorry,” wiped the slate clean— at least until the next time.
Being “washed in the blood,” as the old hymn puts it, rarely inhibits the work of history’s bloodied hands (see Isaiah 1:15.).
The imposition of Ash Wednesday, inaugurating the practice of Lenten lament, is the preparation for and anticipation of the exultation of Easter morning.
The ashen smudge is not accusation but recognition of our frenzied and frantic efforts at braggadocious living. It is the call to reclaim our true selves in the leisure of sabbath’s composure aligned with creation’s intent.
To live in this sort of leisure, this sort of rest, comes by acknowledging creation’s gravitational sway on history’s alignment with the Beloved’s assignment.
Yet, such acknowledgment entails the confession that creation’s orbit is off-kilter, now more like a demolition derby – the whole world shaking and rattling and crashing one into the other in a seemingly insatiable quest for supremacy, seized (and self-hallowed) by strength of hand or guile of spirit or deceit of agency.
Lenten observance is the candid recognition that this is so and that we ourselves, in ways large and small, are implicated beyond our ability to fathom.
Ash Wednesday does not signal the menace of divine carnage. Lenten submission is not groveling in hope of divine lenience.
Rather, it is the recognition that we are far from home, forever squeezed in the grip of threat, and have been invited to return to the Blessed One’s sheltering wing, to the table of bounty beyond imagination, to repose in green pastures besides still waters and restorative embrace — all in the presence of enemies not as targets of spite but for shared anthems of praise.
Our ashen signature is a call to abandon the world but not the earth — the earth that was blessed in the beginning and will again, as promised, be heaven-infused.
The “world” is the rule of racketeers and traffickers and financiers. We are called to name them, to remediate their victims and to insert ourselves in risky, disrupting ways into their machinations.
In truth, Ash Wednesday is not an imposition but an extrication from the shackles of scarcity’s illusion. It is the road to freedom.
There is a certain solitude in our journey, but not isolation. The way unfolds only to those who gather castaways along the journey — the final welcome vouchsafed by the company of the disappeared.
Your ashen smear beckons you to “get woke!” Awake, awake from hazy indifference or anxious fray. Remind your children that their formation will necessarily include discomfort.
Persevering hope comes not by averting eyes from scorched streets and choked streams. Death-defying hope is forged from the ashes for those soaked in the penitential wake.
Behold the beauty still lacing the earth. Pry yourself, piece by pound, from the deceiver’s web, and lend your weft to the Beloved’s warp in reweaving the fabric of God’s commonwealth.
For a weightier harvest, set your plow deeper. Jesus never said it would be easy. But he did say it would be worth it.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a “Lenten Lectionary” series for Lent 2023. Each week, an article will be published reflecting on one or more of the lectionary texts for the forthcoming Sunday. Two articles will appear this week – today’s Ash Wednesday reflection and tomorrow’s article on the lectionary texts for the first Sunday of Lent.
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action, and author of, most recently, In the Land of the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions. He was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.