This reflection was first shared by Ms. Stewart during our Ash Wednesday liturgy on March 2, 2022.
"My ninth graders can tell you how much I love country music. Mostly the old stuff—Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta, Johnny, Reba, Dolly (of course). And I’ve explained to them that what I love about it is that at that at its core, country music is about never getting over anything that has ever happened to you.
Country music dwells. It dwells on stories of regret, loss, guilt, shame, disappointment, and self-pity. It dwells on wounds that never close and grief that never resolves. That is, it dwells on feelings and experiences that most of us, most of the time, prefer not to think about. Like I said—never getting over anything that has ever happened to you. That’s my definition of country music.
Harlan Howard put it better. Howard defined country music as: “three chords and the truth.”
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been thinking about why it is that I love Ash Wednesday. Because I do. I love Ash Wednesday. Some of it is aesthetic. You process up to a minister who stops you, looks you dead in the eye, tells you that one day you are going to snuff it, and smears ashes on your face. Say what you will about Catholicism—we do have style.
More than that, though, I love Ash Wednesday because what it asks us to do, and what it asks us to dwell on, is so valuable. Ash Wednesday asks us to dwell on feelings that most of us, most of the time, prefer not to think about. Ash Wednesday, fundamentally, asks us to tell the truth to ourselves.
And the two basic truths that we practice telling ourselves today are: (1) we are going to die, and (2) we are not always good.
Why those two truths? Why are they important, and why do we need to hear those two truths told together?
When we reflect on death, above all when we experience a death, the world changes. Our whole perspective shifts. We are reminded that our time here is limited, and it is precious.
When we reflect on sin, that also shifts our perspective. Sin is a word with a lot of baggage attached to it, but at the most basic level sin is about the things we do that turn us away from God and from what God wants for us—above all by turning us away from the love of other human beings.
The point of Ash Wednesday and of Lent isn’t to beat up on ourselves. That’s not constructive. Rather, reflecting on the ways we have turned away from God should prompt us to reflect on the sorts of people we do want to be, the relationships we do want to have, the world we do want to live in, the communities we do want to build.
That’s what Ash Wednesday, and the whole season of Lent, is about. It reminds us that, to borrow a line from WH Auden, “You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.”
We are reminded of all of this today, spookily and stylishly, with the imposition of ashes. And we continue to practice telling ourselves the truth throughout the season of Lent—so that we can renew our commitment to God and to the people around us.
Our time is short, and we’re all we’ve got."