Into the Depths: A Reflection for Ash Wednesday, 2021

Today, Ash Wednesday 2021, marks a strange anniversary for me. For it was one (liturgical) year ago that I first wrote here about 2020 shaping up to be a brutal year. And so to me at least, it genuinely feels like a marker of one year of this collective experience of struggle.

As I reflected the other day, our society isn’t built for an experience like this. Our entire social and political order is based on individualism, immediacy, action, and choice, all of which have been greatly challenged over the past year. And these social values are not separate from theological values. Perhaps this is why Christians — especially, though certainly not exclusively white Christians — have been so vocal in opposing public health measures. As theologian Michael Hardin has noted:

Our current … scene is dominated by what Martin Luther called a theology of glory. This kind of theology finds God in success, power, triumph, fame and fortune. When things to well with us we say God is blessing us, when things go bad we surmise that God is not pleased with us … This is exactly the opposite of an authentic Christian existence that is utterly dependent upon God’s grace and knows that even in the deepest darkness God is there … (The Jesus Driven Life, s.7.4).

In light of this, it’s no surprise our communities have struggled to know what to do with a year like the one we’ve had. It’s no surprise that a culture that prizes individualism has struggled with a time that requires collective action, that a society that promotes immediacy has struggled with an experience that demands patience, that a system designed to reward hustle has teetered in this season that asks us to sit back and wait, or that a world that prizes choice above all hasn’t known what to do with an experience that has severely limited our decisions and opportunities. It also isn’t surprising that a Church that has come to see God in glory and triumph is struggling to deal with a year that has been anything but glory and triumph, and which has brought up existential questions about what Church is and does. These are uncharted waters for most of us. Or, to shift the analogy slightly, these are depths many of us — especially those of us who have lived with economic, gender, or racial privilege — have not had much occasion to explore. It’s as though our society decided long ago that Summer was the only ‘right’ season, and so we find ourselves not only totally unprepared for Winter, but also under the wrong impression that Winter is bad. And so many of us are trying to fight Winter or living in denial of it instead of adjusting our lives to its realities.

But there is great value in the depths. Winter is essential. God is revealed not only in glory, but also — and most of all — in the cross.

One of the benefits that comes with growing older is a perspective on life that is far richer and deeper than the surface idealism of youth. While no one wants a difficult life, for oneself or for one’s loved ones, when I look back, it is precisely the most difficult seasons that have been the most valuable. Those are the experiences that have taught me about the complexity of life, about empathy, about my weaknesses and woundedness, about my strength and resilience. Compared to this hard-won gold dug up from the depths, the flashy allure of an easy life lived on the surface holds no appeal. That sort of life feels like fast food compared to the richness and quality of the feast offered to us by the depths.

The Apostle Paul would no doubt agree with me on that. We see this in today’s Epistle reading, in which Paul talks about successes and struggles in equal measure:

As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything (2 Cor 6.4-10).

Reflecting on Paul’s life, Michael Hardin notes that in contrast to the theology of glory so prominent in our culture, “it was in the breakdown of life, in its gutters and sewers, in its crosses and insults that Paul knew the extraordinary grace of God” (The Jesus Driven Life s7.4). Life isn’t just about ease, Summer, the shallows, or glory; it’s also about struggle, Winter, the depths, and the cross. Thomas Moore, a psychoanalyst and philosopher, speaks of the need for difficult experiences in his book Care of the Soul:

The soul presents itself in a variety of colors, including all the shades of gray, blue, and black. To care for the soul, we must observe the full range of all its colorings, and resist the temptation to approve only of white, red, and orange — the brilliant colors.

He continues:

Melancholy thoughts carve out an interior space where wisdom can take up residence. … Feelings of emptiness, the loss of familiar understandings and structures in life, and the vanishing of enthusiasm, even though they seem negative, are elements that can be appropriated and used to give life fresh imagination.

What all of this is saying is that, while our culture can think of ‘negative’ experiences and emotions only as a kind of graveyard — a Valley of Dry Bones — we would do well to think of them instead as a garden: a place where the decay of what has already been is what brings fertility, richness, and nutrients to the soil. New life grows out of the loss of the old life. It’s in the depths that we truly encounter the revitalizing, greening power of God.

These heavy — but, I believe, important and true — thoughts are on my mind as we enter this second pandemic Lent, because I think they are intimately connected to the work of this season. The difficult things the pandemic asks of us — working together for the good of the community, patience, and learning when inaction is better than action, and how to navigate situations where our choices are limited and disappointing — are exactly the sorts of values ascetic practices, such as prayer and fasting and communal rules of life, were designed to cultivate. And that means they are exactly the values we lean into in Lent.

I’ve written so many times on this blog about our need for new metaphors surrounding repentance. The main ones I’ve explored here have been coming to see the world with God’s eyes and shining light into the dark places of our hearts. I think this idea of exploring the depths is another fitting metaphor, whether we think of it as scuba diving — descending into the places within us we haven’t visited — or of digging down into the soil of our hearts to find the rich, black soil upon which new life can grow.

Perhaps because of all this, as I think about Lent this year, I’m feeling drawn towards spending more time in sacred practices, and especially in the silence of the depths. And, as today’s Gospel’s warning against public displays of piety reminds us, that isn’t for public consumption. And so I’ll be writing less over the next few weeks. As far as the blog goes, I plan on writing on Sundays, and mid-week I will re-post some old posts highlighting different sacred practices. But writing won’t be a major focus in Lent. Instead, I’ll be stepping back, descending into the depths and digging up that good black soil. And I encourage you to do the same in whatever ways, big or small, you are able.

Wishing you a gentle and healing Lent.

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