Ash Wednesday – the Little Things and Mystery

Mary Magdala Community

Ash Wednesday – the Little Things and Mystery ©

by Rev. Jim Ryan,

I delivered this homily at this year’s annual Ash Wednesday Service celebrated together by the faith communities of Wauwatosa Area United Methodist Church and Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community.


George was my best friend growing up.  He and I had that idyllic childhood that social scientists, historians, novelists, and others identify when they go chasing after what it was like growing up in the 1950s and early 60s in this country.  The truth is, looking back on it, we did have such a wonderful childhood.  Summers were endless days and evenings of getting on our bikes in the morning and off them after sundown.  The neighborhood was our oyster.  Pickup baseball games in the big lot by the Silk Mill factory with other friends.  5cent candy bars, 10cent ice cream cones, and 25cent milk shakes.  And all done on our whim – unscheduled and unregulated.  Tell that to a young parent today that their child will roam all day and into the night without checking in or scheduling anything that wasn’t absolutely what the child wanted to do.

At 11 years old we would get on the bus to go downtown Cleveland to take in an Indians game and eat the meatball sandwiches that Sonny’s Mom (our other friend) made for us.  I learned early on the importance for an Irish kid to have an Italian friend in our group.  The meals alone were phenomenal.

Of course, truth be told, also back then behind every curtain at the front window of each house was a Mom.  A Mom who, when necessary, would pop her head out the door to say, “You boys get out of there.  Don’t you have anything better to do?”

George and I had it made in the shade.  Another of our pastimes was shooting pool in George’s basement.  Evidence of my misspent youth is how good I got at shooting pool.

Today the memory of this friendship melts away the years, as in, “Seems like only yesterday.”

Each year gives us events that we hold in memory to remember.  2018, for example, could be remembered as that curious year when Ash Wednesday fell on St. Valentine’s Day and Easter fell on April Fool’s Day.  Let’s hope not.

2018 is a year also for looking back.  It is the 50th anniversary year of 1968.  For many of us there will be events this year – sad and tragic events – that will return to us in memory, hopefully to learn from our history.  For those who don’t personally remember 1968 I only hope that you also will learn these lessons so that history may not repeat itself.

Here’s an event from early in 1968.  The Tet Offensive started on January 30-31 in Vietnam.  Remember that?  It was the largest military offensive action by the North Vietnamese against South Vietnam and the American forces.  Over 75,000 Vietcong attacked – to the surprise of all and the embarrassment of the leadership of our country and South Vietnam.

Tet was the event, with its debilitating aftermath, that caused Walter Cronkite, billed as “The Most Trusted Man in America,” to go to Vietnam to see for himself.  Cronkite’s own credentials included years as a war correspondent on Edward R. Murrow’s CBS news team during World War II.  Walter was all too familiar with war and, because of that experience, with evaluating war.  Cronkite’s assessment, which he reported on a national television broadcast was that the war was at a stalemate, as in, unwinnable.  Yet the war dragged on with senseless loss of life and almost irreparable damage to the land and water for 5 more years.

Here’s where George and I come back into the picture.  After Tet, George wound up in the service on his way to a tour (what a strange word in a horrible context) to Vietnam.  I was in the seminary.  Our correspondence during his tour involved each one telling the other what was going on in our lives – he mostly saying not much about the war and me telling of my anti-war actions and involvements.  We kept up our friendship through our letters.

When George returned to the States I happened to be home from the seminary.  He said we should get together at his parents’ home.  I was a little uncertain and not just a little anxious over this reconnecting because of what we each had been through in the previous year.

So, there we were once again in his parents’ basement around the pool table.  Before we started the first game George took out his wallet and pulled from it a piece of paper.  It was the scoresheet of all those games of pool we shot in our childhood.  You see, just to prove that we were learning how to be male in America growing up in the late 50s and early 60s it wasn’t enough for us to just shoot pool.  We, of course, turned it into a competition.  And the sheet showed that I had a very large lead in the win column.

When I told George I was surprised he still had our scoresheet this is how he responded.  He said, “I told myself if I got home from this war in one piece that I would shoot pool with Jimmy Ryan until we evened the score.  So, for the next 12-15 hours we shot pool.  Far into the night we played.  And when the Wins came up even (George apparently did get the chance to improve on his game while in the Service) – then we stopped.  It was the only thing to do.

So, as we begin another Lent I have two things to say about memory.  The first is that memory is about the little things.  It’s about scraps of paper that become motivation to make it through a war, scoresheets that are more about friendship than about who wins or loses.

I bet that each one of us has had the experience of reaching out in friendship and care, of getting outside ourselves for the other person.  In these times we know it’s the little things that make a difference.

What about friends who say to us, “You know that thing you did for me? It was so considerate of you.”  And we cannot remember what that little thing was.

Memory is about the little things that, small and maybe even insignificant as they seemed to be – we remember them 50 years later.  We get the chance again with this Lent to do the little things that often enough show us what is important when we get entrusted with the big things.

Here’s the second thing I’d like to say about memory.

Jean Luc Marion is a French philosopher who teaches at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.  Marion likes to remind his students and readers of a bit of advice that St. Augustine gave some 1500 years ago.  Augustine said, “Seek not to understand in order to believe, rather believe in order to understand.”  Here’s what I think he is saying and why Marion sees it as important to remind us.

In this age, in this year of 2018, when knowing all the technology that it is possible to know is the basis for great rewards – professionally, economically, socially – knowing and understanding what one knows is one of those highest of priorities in life.  However, you can know and understand all you want and can but that does not lead to faith.

Faith is first a gift.  And for our purpose here this evening I’d like to point out that faith feeds off memory.  The memory of receiving this gift, the memory of experiencing others who also believe, the memory of seeing good things that outweigh the bad – these are the memories that feed our faith.

And especially because we gather here to celebrate our faith in Word and Eucharist here’s the second thing I’d like to say about memory.  It is the memory of mystery.  I believe we cannot really believe without being open to and experiencing mystery.  In the Orthodox Church what we celebrate as Holy Week Services is referred to as the celebration of the Mysteries.  As we gather at this table this evening let’s consider the memory of one of the greatest mysteries of all.

At that final Passover Meal which Jesus celebrated with his disciples he took the lead, as was expected of him, in proclaiming Berakhah, the blessing over the bread and the cup.  All good Jews know these prayers by heart.  You can see those who hear Jesus say the prayer, “Blessed are you, Lord of all creation….”  At the end of the prayer as at every Passover they will expect Jesus to pass the bread around.  But this time at the end of the prayer Jesus adds, “This is my body given for you.”

This is a shock.  Jesus does a riff of his own thus violating over 1000 years of Jewish history and ritual practice.  And with this one sentence all is changed.  Jesus changes the world.  He interrupts time and space.  On his own with one sentence Jesus changes us.

And here’s one of the things that mystifies me in reliving this meal as we do each time we share at the table of Eucharist.  Yes, we remember that night when Jesus changed everything with one sentence.  Yes, we remember Jesus wrapped himself in a cloth, took a basin and a pitcher of water to wash the disciples’ feet.  All this is action that we regularly replicate.

However, if you want to get a sense of what was most on Jesus’ mind and in his heart that night go and re-read the 17th Chapter of the Gospel of John.  Read again Jesus’ prayer that night, because I believe one can only assume that what Jesus prayed for that night, just as when you and I pray, was for the most important thing.

Remember?  Jesus prayed, “I pray for those who will believe in me through their (the disciples) word, that all may be one……” (John 17:20-21)

So here’s the second thing I want to say about memory.  It is that along with being about the little things, memory is also about mystery.  And after 2000 years how can we Christians not pray through this mystery of oneness for which Jesus prayed?

This evening we celebrate as two faith communities but we are obliged to be one, to act as one, to believe as one – to create a new memory of oneness.

That’s why our joint Ash Wednesday Service matters – and won’t it be an answer to Jesus’ prayer for us to create many new memories of oneness by acting, praying, celebrating together?

After all, the memory of doing “the little things” and the memory of mystery will only prepare us for the task at hand when Jesus entrusts us with a Spirit to do the big things.

Please accept this blessing for our new memories:

May winter’s long nights not be fearful.

May lengthening days bring hope.

May the promise of light and of warmth

heal that which separates us.

Let today’s memory be a blessing to confirm us in faith,

encourage us in hope,

and, because it is also St. Valentine’s Day,

make us all very happy in love.     Amen.



One Response

  1. karen says:

    love your homily. glad I was able to bring it up memories are the best thins in the world

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