Gracious Ashes: The Contested Space of Ash Wednesday

I love Ash Wednesday. I love the power of the day’s liturgy. I love the simple gesture of marking the sign of the cross in ash on someone’s forehead while saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I love doing and saying that while looking into the eyes of people I’ve gotten to know over the years I’ve been Rector of Grace; people I’ve been in conflict with, people I’ve grieved with and celebrated with, people I’ve prayed with, and people who have ministered to me. I also love doing and saying that while looking into the faces of people I’ve never seen before. I wonder as I do it what brought them here on this day, for this ritual.

I love the multiple ironies of the day: a gospel reading that warns us about displaying our piety in public even as we do it; a lesson from Joel that calls on priests, the ministers of God, to weep between the vestibule and altar; a call to all of us to the observance of a Holy Lent as we get ready to go about the business of our daily lives with hardly a thought to the ashes on our forehead until someone looks at us quizzically, to go about the business of our daily lives after having been called to repentance and fasting.

And I love that Ash Wednesday has become another contested space in the Episcopal Church. The movement to offer ashes on the street–Ashes to Go–has become a point of conflict as we struggle to adapt our faith and worship to the twenty-first century. Passions run high as a quick check of comments on various posts concerning Ashes to Go on the Episcopal Cafe or other blogs will reveal. Thoughtful people have written passionately and profoundly on both sides of the question whether offering ashes outside of the liturgy of the day is appropriate. They’ve written beautifully about their experiences when offering ashes; they’ve written beautifully and convincingly about the importance of the overall liturgical context. Others have written with grace about their own ambivalence about this new practice.

In a way, the conflict over Ashes to Go mirrors other conflicts in the church. But there’s also something unique about it. I think what sets it apart is the stuff, the sign, itself. Ashes are just a little strange. Ashes are at best a by-product, the remains of a fire. Usually, they are meant to be discarded, dirt, a nuisance. Contrast that with the water of baptism or the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Ashes are dirty, unclean, impure. For many of us in the church they are a reminder and sign of our mortality. Putting them on our forehead (or allowing them to be put on our forehead) is a profoundly transgressive act. It requires us to overcome cultural and personal norms of behavior. It requires us to be open and vulnerable, to be made dirty and impure.

Ashes remind us of our mortality. They remind us of our origins (“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”). They also connect us with parts of ourselves that go deeply beneath the veneer of modernity and post-modernity. There are those who say that human beings’ efforts to control fire are linked to the origins of civilization. Ashes remind us of all that and more.

When we touch and are touched by ashes, all that and more threatens to come to the surface: our mortality, our humanity, our brokenness and pain. When we touch and are touched by ashes, we touch and are touched by the power of fire and the power of God. When we touch and are touched by ashes, we make ourselves vulnerable to God’s forgiving and redemptive love.

In the end, even my effort here to make sense of what we officiously call “The Imposition of Ashes” fails, because whatever meaning I make of it is just that, “my meaning” and not someone else’s. Who knows what it might mean to a passer-by who isn’t a Christian, or to someone who has never attended an Ash Wednesday liturgy? Who knows what meaning they might make of it, what emotions it might evoke, or how it might open one up to an encounter with God? We (the clergy, the Church) can’t control how people interpret and experience the liturgy, whether it’s within the four walls of a church or on a busy street corner. We can’t control the movement of the Spirit. She can use ashes to change hearts, but she can as easily change hearts without ashes–or without our help for that matter.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about me, I’ll be on the street corner on Wednesday after services at 7 and 12 noon, offering ashes to passers-by. I’ll be at the same place I am every Sunday morning before services, greeting passers-by and those who enter our doors. If past years are any indication, I’ll put ashes on a few foreheads. I’ll also have plenty of interesting conversations and encounters–but then that happens pretty much every time I walk out the door.

Some other reflections about Ashes to Go:

From Scott Gunn:

The chief complaint about Ashes to Go is that it is cheap, since you don’t have to go to an entire liturgy; one merely receives ashes in a public place. My sense is that in our culture, wearing ashes is costly. This is why Christians love to rationalize wiping them off pronto. Indeed, the Gospel for the day exhorts us to, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

If wearing ashes on your forehead were viewed as cool (and you’d know this because celebrities and powerful people would wear their ashes on the teevees), then we would want to remove them pronto. But I suspect a smudge on one’s forehead is actually a bit embarrassing to most people. It invites questions, “What is that, and why is it there?” In other words, there is a cost to that ashen cross. So when someone in a train station receives this reminder of their mortality, they are doing it at some cost — as opposed to the socially acceptable way of getting into a station wagon and driving to church where the ashes are quickly removed in the narthex after mass, which is, from the perspective of culture, cheap and easy.

From Jared Cramer:

Most importantly, we need to remember the point of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The imposition of ashes is important. The Litany of Penitence is important. The celebration of Holy Eucharist, a reminder of the consequences of our sin and of the extravagant grace that covers those sins, yes this is so very important. But the point of Ash Wednesday is to invite people into a Holy Lent. The reason this day exists is for the purpose of one paragraph of the liturgy,

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

And this is the point of “Ashes to Go.” It’s not to get people their ashes—the ashes are only a symbol of something larger. True, some people may think that they are simply getting this checked off their list, but they are mistaken. Because when that ash is smudged, they are invited to something deeper.

Advertisements

Respecting the dignity of every human person and the refusal to be complicit in torture

I have posted a great deal over the years about US use of torture. As an Episcopal priest, I have also posted several times about our baptismal covenant, and the vow we make in it “to respect the dignity of every human being.”

As a priest, I also struggle with how our liturgy connects with people’s daily lives. Do they find in our worship help in making sense of the moral and ethical decisions they face? Does our worship help them find meaning in their lives? I wonder about those questions and occasionally, as in today’s sermon, I explored how the rituals of Lent may or may not be meaningful to most of those who attend our worship services.

Of course, I never know and can often not tell what sort of impact either or worship or my sermons have on those who attend. I was amused today when greeting some visitors to learn that they had attended one previous service at Grace, a year ago, and they remembered my sermon–they remembered that I had once worked for a seafood processing company. So we don’t know the sort of impact our words and our worship have.

But then I came across this story of Lt. Stuart Crouch, who refused to prosecute prisoners at Guantanamo who had been tortured. He talks about his anguish as he learned the “harsh interrogation” techniques used on prisoners. But what cemented the decision for him was one Sunday when he attended a service at an “Anglican” church, where a baptism was celebrated:

I was wrestling with these—with this legal issue and with this ethical issue. And then, ultimately, you know, one Sunday when I was in church, it all kind of came together. I describe myself as an evangelical Christian. I was attending a church service in the Anglican tradition, and it was a baptism of a child. And anybody who’s ever been to one of these services knows that at the end of the baptism all of the congregants in the church stand up, and the pastor goes back and forth with basically the tenets of the Christian faith. And one of those tenets was that we would respect the dignity of every human being. And it was at that time, when I was professing that on Sunday, begged the question to me, if this is what you believe as a Christian, then how does that inform how you’re going to act the other six days of the week? And that really, for me, was the moral point that I came to of what I had to do next.

And what I did next was I went and met with the chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions. I told him my legal opinion. I told him my ethical opinion. And then I stated in—you know, I have a moral reservation at this point that what’s been done to Slahi is just reprehensible, and for that reason alone, I’m going to refuse to participate in the prosecution of his case. Shortly, within a couple of days, I reduced that—those positions into writing. I provided them to the chief prosecutor. And then, after a few days, I was told to transfer that case to someone else and for me to get busy on my other cases.

Our liturgy is not “just ritual” or rote, or cute things we do on Sunday. The liturgy matters. It helps orient us theologically and ethically, and occasionally, it can be a powerful witness all by itself, to the justice and mercy of God. Sometimes it can be a sign of God’s reign in the world. Thanks be to God!

Does a definition of religion necessarily involve belief? Ritual and Religious Experience

When I used to teach Intro to Religion, and even when I taught Intro to Bible, one of the exercises I would give my students on the first day was to ask them to define religion in a sentence or two. Invariably, the overwhelming majority would include “belief” in their definition. I would then give them a collection of definitions from scholars over the last century and a half, showing the wide range of thinking about the nature of religion, including many that made no reference to belief or faith.

I bring this up because the British philosopher John Gray has reviewed Alain de Botton’s recent book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Gray capsulates de Botton’s argument in this way:

Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion – communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things. I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which

very often coexists with faith.

But in the course of his essay, Gray points out that most of the world’s religions have had at their core the practice of a way of life, rather than assent to a sent of doctrinal beliefs, and that there are strands within Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Christianity, “that deny that spiritual realities can be expressed in terms of beliefs at all.”

Gary Gutting attempts to offer a philosophical challenge to Gray’s argument about religion. But his argument is dependent upon a slightly different definition than Gray’s. Gutting begins with a different starting point, not a definition that attempts to encompass a wide variety of religions, but a narrower one that focuses on salvation. He cites Islam and “mainline” Christianity as prime examples.

Then he tests Gray’s argument with the problem of evil.  The only plausible answer for a theist is that God is beyond our capacity to understand; but if that’s the case, we can’t be certain that God will act to save us:

Once we appeal to the gap between our limited knowledge and God’s omniscience, we cannot move from what we think God will do to what he will in fact do.

I was reminded of this debate thanks to something a lunch companion said this week. We were talking about the Book of Common Prayer’s power to shape us as Christians, as its language and liturgy becomes ours over time, and comes to shape our experience and understanding of God.

We are approaching Holy Week when we will enter into the drama of the last days of Jesus’ life, participating as individuals and as communities in those ritual re-enactments. We enter into the stories, become the stories. We participate as well as observe. For many of us, the drama of Holy Week, experienced over a period of years or decades, have shaped us in ways we can’t even articulate.

Am I able to articulate a theologically-sound doctrine of the atonement? Hardly. Do I experience the saving love of Jesus’ death on the cross? Of course! And never more powerfully than while participating in the liturgy of Good Friday.

Contentious rituals, contentious ashes–seeking meaning in a secular world

I’ve been reflecting on Ash Wednesday–my own experience of it as well as its place in American culture the past couple of days. I’ve especially been intrigued by the growing popularity of “ashes to go” as well as the pushback. This movement has generated considerable publicity, both in traditional media and onlne and it has given rise to some interesting thinking about Ash Wednesday’s significance in post-christian culture.

I’ll dust off my former “religious studies scholar hat” for a moment or two. The power and meaning of rituals are much debated, both within and between religious communities, and among scholars of religion. In the west, in contemporary American Christianity, there are relatively few rituals that use real matter as powerfully and dramatically as Ash Wednesday. Think about it. The water of baptism leaves no physical mark after one has dried off; the bread and wine of the Eucharist are often reduced to faint imitations of real bread and wine. Even burials are rarely accompanied by the sight of real dirt (astroturf covers the open grave and if dirt is needed to sprinkle while saying “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the funeral director provides a small vial of sand).

Ashes are real. Of course one can buy them from religious supply houses but most of us like to go the whole nine yards, burning last year’s palms and grinding them up. Ashes are messy. I have yet to figure out how not to leave a trail of them throughout the church and as often as not, while distributing them, a few will fall on the nose or cheek of the people.

We rarely touch ashes or find them on our bodies, except on Ash Wednesday, or if we are in the midst of cleaning out a fireplace. Ashes are dirt; they are evidence of disorder and destruction and have no place in our daily life. Certainly they do not belong on our foreheads, or in a church. But there they are.

There is a deep anti-ritualism in Protestant Christianity that has extended itself to mainstream American culture. It’s only a ritual, we say; or that’s empty ritual. At the same time, there is a deep yearning for meaning, for authenticity, and for connection. Ash Wednesday offers all of those things. What is more real, more authentic than the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”? What deeper connection is made between the one who says those words and distributes the ashes, and the one who receives them? It may be a momentary connection, no more lasting than the touch of a thumb on a forehead and a shared glance, but in that moment there is connection, between priest and people, in an individual (their past, present, and future) and with an individual and their God, Creator and Redeemer.

Nothing about Ash Wednesday has surprised me more than the demographics at our services. There was a higher percentage of students and young adults at all of our services on Wednesday than there are on Sunday mornings. Clearly, the ritual of Ash Wednesday resonates.

There is a great deal of discussion about young adults and religion. Are they losing their religion? Are they disconnected and flying solo? How can we reach out and share the good news of Jesus Christ in this post-Christian world where people are seeking meaning and connection?

I think an answer might be here, in Ash Wednesday. To offer rituals, worship that are deeply authentic and connecting, not just with God, with other humans, or with our own emotions. To offer rituals that are authentic and connect us with the real–like ashes–that connect us with our humanity, our deepest selves, and show us that at our deepest selves is the desire and love of God, such rituals, whether performed in a a traditional space like a church, on a streetcorner or a subway stop, such rituals can offer hope, direction and grace, for broken people in a broken world.

More importantly, we can’t know what effect our actions might have on those we touch, we cannot know how God might be at work, whether those actions take place at an altar rail, or at a bus stop. Those effects are in God’s hands, in God’s grace, something for which I am endlessly grateful to the God I love and serve.

Eucharistic whiplash–I love being a priest

Today was one of those days that nothing prepares you for. I woke up exhausted, feeling I hadn’t had a wink of sleep, and knowing that it was going to be one of those days. After the usual round of emails, that included a delightful surprise (more about that later), I made my way for the annual rector’s obligatory Christmas Eucharist for the Rector’s Guild. This is an organization that was founded decades ago, by a rector who was hoping to encourage women of the parish to support particular projects that he thought were worthy. Over time, it has become primarily a social organization and its membership is largely rather elderly.

I attended the meeting today and celebrated Eucharist for the some twenty-five women who were in attendance. I neglected to bring the pile of service booklets that were on my desk, so when I arrived, I decided that it would make most sense to celebrate a Rite I Eucharist. As I said to the ladies in attendance, most of them knew the responses, and then I quipped, if they didn’t know the responses in Rite I, they probably shouldn’t belong to the Guild. Indeed, the responses were loud and clear, and when I announced we would be doing Rite I, there were exclamations of joy.

I had a delightful time, connecting with some folks I rarely see, and enjoying being with a group of women in a context I rarely have the opportunity to be in.

This evening was a very different celebration of the Eucharist. I decided, very last minute, to try a Celtic Eucharist during Advent, choosing Tuesdays, because it seemed the best night, given other activities at Grace. Tonight was a revelation. The numbers weren’t particularly large, but given the minimal publicity, to have 13 in attendance is something of a feat. But more remarkable were the demographics. Of the 13, six were young adults and/or relative newcomers. They had heard about it only from our internal publicity. Since I’ve been at Grace, we’ve attempted a number of things on weeknights in Advent and Lent–Evening Prayer, Eucharist, book studies, but tonight’s turn-out was by far the largest for anything we’ve done on our own.

Of course there’s a certain amount of curiosity, but I think trying something new is worth the effort. I’m especially encouraged by the presence of young adults and am hopeful that when the Episcopal Campus Ministry moves to Grace in the New Year, we may find new ways of reaching out to students and young adults in our neighborhood.

It might also be that a straight Rite I service could be as appealing to people as the Celtic Eucharist we’ve been doing this Advent.

Let’s try it and see!

A new translation of the Roman Missal

For those out of the loop, that would be the Latin Mass. It’s been in the works for some time, but next Sunday marks the beginning of its official use. The controversy has already begun among Roman Catholics, and perhaps not too surprisingly, among Anglicans as well.

Some background and early reactions to the new translation are here. A video providing some in-depth material is here. The full list of changes is here: peoplesparts

It’s interesting that the CNN piece refers to “confusion” in the pews. We’ve been dealing with “confusion” in the pews for decades now, in the Episcopal Church as well as with conflict over the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which many people call “new” although it’s over 30 years old.

One of the most significant aspects of these changes is that it marks another break between Roman Catholics and other Christians in the English-speaking world who had relied on similar translations of many of the key liturgical texts (the Lord’s Prayer, the creed, et al).

Here is one person’s response to participating in its use in a parish already.

There are some significant changes, like the people’s response to the celebrant’s “The Lord be with you.” It becomes “And with your spirit.” That’s a more literal translation of the Latin, of course, and exactly the same as Rite One in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Other changes are less obvious, and more controversial: “consubstantial” replaces “of one being” in the Nicene Creed. Again, it’s more literal, but what person lacking a theological education understands it; and what person with a rudimentary theological education will not immediately think of Lutheran Eucharistic theology.

The Bishop of London (Church of England) has had to warn his clergy not to use the new missal in Anglican worship.

 

Please don’t call the liturgy police!

So, I did one of those things you’re probably warned against in Liturgy classes in seminary, but then I didn’t take such a class. Our 12 noon Spanish-language service has been without a regular priest since the retirement of Pat Size last year. It’s a small, but lively and very committed group and we are committed to seeing it thrive and support as long as needed. They continue to worship together, saying Morning Prayer some Sundays, relying on supply priests and occasionally a deacon to lead services. Although this solution may seem to be cobbled together, it has had one great benefit–raising up lay leadership and lay ownership of that worship service, empowering the laity to do the people’s work (liturgy).

When I met with the congregation several months ago to check in and see how I might support their efforts, I suggested on the spur of the moment, that we experiment with me celebrating the Eucharist in English, and they responding in Spanish. Today was our first trial.

It was interesting. Occasionally, I heard English responses to my words, but for the most part, we did it half and half. There was something of a disconnect, for me at least, but at the same time, we did come together around the altar as the Body of Christ, to share Christ’s body and blood, and in that coming together, we became one. It may be that in time, we will all become more comfortable with this experiment and find ways of making it more meaningful. I must say, it is rather odd, though, to use two languages in the liturgy. It seems to go against the notion of “common prayer.” Right now, we are planning on continuing the experiment on a monthly basis for the fall. We’ll see how it goes.