Wednesday this week is, for Christians, Ash Wednesday, surely one of the oddest of religious festivals. Believers mark the beginning of the Lenten season (so named for the middle English word for lengthening of days in the spring) by having the sign of the cross smudged onto their foreheads in ashes made by burning the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday services.
For those who want their religion upbeat and cheerful, Ash Wednesday may be a day to stay home.
It begins with a long confession of sin, proceeds to the “imposition” of ashes, accompanied by the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Or, an option, “Turn away from your sins and believe the good news.”
Alexander the Great had a servant whose primary job was to say daily to Alexander, “My Lord, you too shall die.” Apparently Alexander understood that the powerful are apt to ignore the limits of their power and to forget their own mortality. Ash Wedneday, our faithful servant, appears once again with its annual reminder of our own mortality.
But it is more. If Ash Wednesday bucks our “Forever Young,” nip-and-tuck culture, it also challenges a culture that is fluent in the language of complaint and blame, but short on the language of responsibility. On Ash Wednesday we don’t point to the failures of others, we take a hard look at our own. On Ash Wednesday, we don’t blame the parents, the politicians, or the people, we consider our own part in the wreck of things.
So it’s an odd day. A day for looking directly at what we most avoid most of the time, both our mortality and our endless capacity for self-deception and self-justification. “Confession,” the old saying goes, “is good for the soul.” Increasingly, it is something else as well: counter-cultural.
Some years back I talked the worship committee of the church I was newly serving as its pastor into having an Ash Wednesday service. "Isn't that a Catholic thing?" they asked. "No, it's a Christian thing," I answered. "Just not something this particular church has chosen to do."
Since it was new to us and thus suspect, someone suggested sweetening the pot by asking a well-known local artist, who sang in the church choir, to do a concert following the Ash Wednesday service from his newly released CD of African-American spirituals. On Ash Wednesday morning his concert had full-page coverage in the arts and entertainment sections of both Seattle’s papers (back when we had two).
When I got up to lead our first-ever Ash Wednesday service, I was stunned to see a packed sanctuary. Moreover, it was packed mostly with people I had never laid eyes on before in my life. I panicked. “Oh Lord, (yes, it was a prayer) what in the world will people make of this . . . this long, tortured confession of sin, the imposition of ashes? Will they accuse us of a bait-and-switch: promising a concert, offering ashes?” In an attempt to allay my own anxiety, if not theirs, I undertook an entirely too wordy explanation of Ash Wednesday and what was about to happen.
When it came time to invite people to come forward for the imposition of the ashes I had no idea if anyone would come — or if they would sit stone-still and staring. Imagine my astonishment when hundreds surged forward. And so many faces were open in hope and anticipation. So many eyes were rimmed and cheeks were wet with tears. There was a palpable sense of God’s presence in the room.
Why was that? For sure, I don’t know. Maybe it was the strangeness of it, something old and ancient and new and odd, all at the same time? Maybe it was the risk entailed in coming forward? Perhaps a hunger for ritual or mystery? Maybe it was the element of human touch or the words repeated over and over like a chant, “Turn away from your sins and believe the good news.” Or at some level, and despite all our protests, we do long for forgiveness, for mercy.
In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred,” novelist Marilynne Robinson writes of the particular wisdom of religion that “there is a mystery in human nature.” More, “Christian theology has spoken of human limitation, fallen-ness, an individually and collectively disastrous bias toward error. I think,” she adds to provide one example, “we all know that the earth might be reaching the end of its tolerance for our presumptions.”
Robinson gets to the heart of Ash Wednesday when she concludes, “The Christian narrative tells us that we individually and we as a world turn our backs on what is true, essential, wholly to be desired. And it tells us that we can both know this about ourselves and forgive it in ourselves and one another. ... To recognize our bias toward error should teach us modesty and reflection, and to forgive it should help us to avoid the inhumanity of thinking we ourselves are not as fallible as those who, in any instance, seem most at fault.”
Two nights after that Ash Wednesday service my wife and I were walking on Broadway, on Capitol Hill in Seattle. The sidewalk was crowded when suddenly a young woman with purple hair and wearing a black, leather jacket stepped into my path. “I was at your church the other night,” she said. “That thing you did with ashes —awesome! The words you said —perfect! I’ll be back.” With that she disappeared again into the crowd on the sidewalk.
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