Ash Wednesday Thresholds
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land - until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
This Lenten season, some of you have heard, we’re inviting each other to “do Lent” a little differently, by learning about and engaging some ancient, Celtic Christian practices as part of our journey to Good Friday and to Easter’s empty tomb – which is what these Lenten days are all about. All of this was inspired by a conversation I had with Pastor Teri Ditslear, from Roots of Life, our friends up in Noblesville, when she and I got together to brainstorm about ways we might walk this Lenten walk in a new way this time around.
In a nutshell, my hope and intention are that we will learn something new about these ancient traditions and disciplines and that we’ll find ways to engage some timeless faith practices in active, hands-on kinds of ways from one week to the next so that this Lenten season of faith, sacrifice, redemption, hope – and more – will be front and center for our hearts and minds in a deliberate, meaningful way.
All of it is inspired by a book called The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred, which you won’t need to have in order to play along, but which some of you might want to have if you’d like to go a little deeper with all of this. The book also teaches about 12 of these practices, all of which we can’t cover in our handful of midweek services. If that’s the case, sign up for a book on the table with the devotionals out there, in the entry, and we should have a book for you by Sunday morning, thanks to the ancient Celtic discipline known as Amazon Prime. They cost $15.00 each.
Okay, enough with the pre-amble. The first Celtic practice that made me think about Ash Wednesday and all that brings us here this evening is what is called “The Practice of Thresholds.”
According to Christine Valters Paintner, the author of the book, thresholds were important to the ancient Irish monks who begat these practices we’ll learn about in the weeks to come. Thresholds are just what you think, I believe. They are the point of crossing over from one place to the next; from one room to the next; from one space to another. A threshold is the space between one time and another, a place of transition. “The Celts describe thresholds as ‘thin times or places’ where heaven and earth are closer together and the veil between worlds is thin.”
In other words, a threshold can be tangible and worldly – like a turnstile at the train station, or the bank of glass doors at your school or office; like the double doors to our sanctuary, or the door from your garage to the kitchen or laundry room of your house.
A threshold can also be an intangible, spiritual thing – like the moment between dusk and nightfall, or dawn and daylight; like a move from illness to healing, or health to illness; like the change of seasons. A threshold can be the transition from one phase of life to another – graduation, marriage, divorce, retirement. Or a threshold might be that thin, mysterious, holy moment between life and death – living and dying – which is where these ashes call our attention to be this evening.
So the value in “the practice of thresholds” – as the ancient, Christian Celts understood it – was to be aware of just how thin these times and places and seasons of transition in our lives can be. And to live differently because of that thinness.
I read an article in The Christian Century magazine last year about a smart phone app that changed a man’s life. I’m not talking about Facebook or Twitter; SnapChat, What’s App, or Words with Friends. This app is called “We Croak.” It’s icon looks like this, though it has nothing to do with frogs.
The app does daily – 5 times a day, actually – what these ashes mean to do for us, once every year, at the beginning of Lent. The app notifies you five times every day, that you are going to die – nothing more and nothing less. From what I can tell, the app has evolved since I first heard about it. Whereas the notifications used to say, simply and repeatedly, 5 times a day, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” nowadays, you are invited to open the app when the notification hits your phone for a short, sweet quotation about death from a poet, philosopher, theologian, or other notable thinker.
The inspiration for the app is a Bhutanese folk saying that suggests, in order for a person to be happy, one must contemplate death five times daily. So, these are just some of kinds of reminders that have hit my phone since I downloaded the app a month or so ago:
“Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic.” (W.H. Auden)
“Despite the sound’s alarming roughness, it’s unlikely that the death rattle is painful.” (Sara Manning Peskin, M.D.)
“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” (Doris Lessing)
“Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.” (Alice Walker)
And, just to bring us back to this notion of “thresholds,”:
“How fine is the mesh of death. You can almost see through it.” (Jane Hirshfield)
This 21st Century app, these ashes on our foreheads, and now, I hope, this ancient practice of thresholds at the beginning of another Lenten journey all serve the same purpose if we choose to embrace them:
To remind us of just how thin the veil is between life and death; how easily crossed the threshold; how swift and surprising, sometimes, it comes, no matter how sure and certain for each of us – we know – it will one day be.
“Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
As followers of the way. As believers in Jesus. As disciples of Christ, we are invited to remember, to not forget the truth of our impending death, because we need not fear the threshold between this life and the next – for ourselves or for those we love.
Because of Jesus, the curtain has been torn in two; the veil has been lifted; the threshold between this life and the next is a thin one; the kingdom of God has broken into our midst so that light and life shine into the darkness and death that pretend to threaten us on this side of the grave.
In Jesus, the love and grace and mercy of God conquers this death, wipes away these ashes, bridges that gap, crosses over the threshold that pretends to mark a distance between sin and forgiveness; judgement and redemption; anger and love; despair and hope; death and new life.
So, our sacred Celtic practice for the week to come, if you choose to play along, is to take notice of the worldly, earthly thresholds in your daily life – work, home, school, church, your neighborhood as you walk, the city limits or the county line as you drive, whatever. And to take notice of the spiritual, less tangible thresholds of your daily life, too – dawn and daylight; dusk and darkness; sleep and wakefulness; work and rest, whatever.
Download the “WeCroak App” if you dare – the author of that article I mentioned suggests there’s something as charming as there is challenging about all of that. Or pick up one of the “threshold stones” as the ancient Celts called them, that I’ve left on the table out front, and leave one or two at the threshold of some place that’s meaningful for you – your home, your office, your school. Let that stone be a reminder for you – and a strange curiosity, I would imagine for anyone who sees it – a reminder of what matters about your life, in that place, on this side of the grave.
And I hope all of this will help us recognize that we are invited to be mindful that we live with one foot in both worlds… in this kingdom and the next… on earth as it is in heaven, if you will. And let us not be afraid of this truth – that we are dust and to dust we will return – and let us rest assured in the promise of God, that nothing – no threshold is deep or wide or strong enough – not even the threshold of death – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.