I went to the Ash Wednesday chapel service at Redeemer University College this week. I found a place toward the back simply to sit and be still. The house lights were down, making solitude possible even in a crowd of familiar faces.
The simplicity of the worship proved powerful. Song followed by a well read passage of scripture; another song with a two-part reading of scripture; an invitation to come forward while a the musicians led another song; and then a closing blessing and a final song. The darkness of the space, the richly voiced scripture readings, the soft rising and falling of contemplative singing allowed for surprisingly deep stillness in a short 30 minute service.
I am giving particular attention to two spiritual disciplines this Lenten season, and throughout this spring: fasting and silence. I have not practiced either with any regularity over the past two years. This service ushered me into silence. I sang with a few of the verses, but not all. The word of God spoken with attention to cadence and the emotions in the text confronted the wandering tendencies of my busy mind. What were pressing responsibilities marching noisily across my heart and mind suddenly stood still, as if a commanding officer had just entered the room.
When invited forward, I did not move. Those who went forward did so with a scribbled note in hand, confessing a sin or a burden that they desired to be rid of during Lent. Instead I closed my eyes, pressing more fully into the abrupt stillness within me.
Soft at first, almost timid, one noise entered the silence – not forcefully, but gently. Tap. Tap-tap. Tap. One student nailed their folded burden to the roughly hewn cross in front of the stage. Soon after, more tapping; two and three hammers working at a time. Then brief pauses as others came forward. Though I did not go forward, the nail taps reverberated with Good Friday’s costly gift, ushering the end of the season into view within its first moments.
Then came the ashes. I watched from my silent seat as an officiant’s blackened thumb went from bowl to forehead: Pressing down from hairline to brow; pushing across from left to right. An ashen cross of our sins marking each person with the assurance of salvation and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. I sat witnessing this public confession, resting in the silent solitude, overwhelmed by God’s grace applied and remembered in body, mind, heart, and soul.
We stood and made our ways to the doors, where we would leave the somber solitude, returning to the business and busyness of that day. As I pressed through the door and looked up, my eyes readjusting to the light outside the auditorium, I saw snow. Big, fluffy, snow falling as if deliberately, almost extravagantly, shook loose from the clouds above.
Coming out of the darkened worship service, the contrasting snow seemed brilliant, each flake invitingly light. The one thing – perhaps the only fitting thing – that came to mind were Isaiah’s words: “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson; they shall be like wool.” And I remembered, my faith refreshed not only through entering the silent confession and the somber ashes of my sin but also in the assurance of pardon in the ashes and the snow that surrounded me.