ASHES TO ASHES
Beginnings, endings, and all that goes between
One of the dangers of being a faithful Episcopalian is getting lured in by the liturgy. The liturgy is certainly what reeled me into the Episcopal Church. Having been raised as a United Methodist, I had seen a variety of styles and orders of worship. On any given Sunday, you never knew what text the preacher would use. And since Eucharist only happened two to four times a year, liturgy was not synonymous with rhythm. But not so in the Episcopal Church. Once you figure out the kneeling, sitting, and standing patterns, the liturgy becomes gloriously expected. You get so used to the patterns that your body almost does the movements without thinking. You love being able to be anywhere in the country and know that the liturgy will be familiar and the lessons predetermined. When seasonal changes, like Advent or Epiphany, happen, you expect and appreciate the subtle differences more. Since most people I know do not really like change, the Episcopal Church is like a little slice of predictable heaven.
The trouble with that sense of comfort is we can miss when something really powerful happens. Ash Wednesday is one of those kinds of days. Growing up in the South, I never really had an experience of Ash Wednesday. College was my first exposure to seeing others with ashes while being invited to don them myself. I remember thinking how exposed having ashes on one’s forehead must be. Ash Wednesday seemed like a big deal. But, I am an Episcopalian now, and like many other things in liturgy, the shock of Ash Wednesday has softened.
That is why I love having a young child around. The first time my oldest really understood what the ashes were all about she exclaimed, “Ew, what is that on your head?” Try explaining to a 3-year-old what being dust means and why I needed to remember I would return to dust. Watch the child’s face as they process what mortality means. Wait for the heavy feeling in your chest when they ask if they can have ashes too – knowing that you will have to say, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” to her precious, innocent face.
Today the Church invites us into a holy Lent. The Prayer Book says this is a time of prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Matthew’s Gospel talks about the disciplines of giving alms, prayer, and fasting. Some of us will take up these specific disciplines. Others of us will commit to reading scripture or a devotional book, giving up chocolate, or playing Lent Madness. The Church tells us these practices or disciplines are to help us walk with Jesus in repentance. The challenge with taking on a spiritual discipline in Lent is making sure the practice is not rote – much like our participation in liturgies can be rote. The Church is not inviting us into the practice of disciplines out of habit. The Church is trying to help breathe life into our faith – and one of the ways that we do that is to do something out of the ordinary to shake up our comfortable, unchanging practices.
Matthew’s gospel is pretty strict about the way those disciplines happen. Jesus says that we are to be private about our alms giving, prayer, and fasting so as not to seem like hypocrites, boasting about our giving, piety, or suffering. But who among us has not slipped on the slippery slope of hypocrisy? Those of us who give charitably often find ourselves claiming that giving on our taxes. Those of us who have ever attended a prayer breakfast or have told a friend that we will pray for them surely were being a little showy about our prayers. And let’s face it, I cannot imagine fasting without complaining at least a little bit. The question then becomes, “How can a text that implores private acts of righteousness be read on the day one receives the imposition of ashes, a very visible and public act of piety?”[I]
But Jesus is not looking to trick us. He is checking our intentions – our authenticity. The trouble with anything rote, whether liturgies or disciplines, is that we risk losing why we are doing them in the first place. When I am busy complaining about fasting, I do not have space in my thoughts to remember those who go without food daily. When I am busy talking about my prayer life, I am filling up the silence through which God most likes to speak to me. When I am weeding through giving materials trying to decide whom to support financially, I lose sight of the gratitude from which my giving originates. The issue is not really whether or not public and private acts are authentic or inauthentic. The issue is being intentional about not only choosing our disciplines, but living into them.
I invite you today to use the tool of liturgy to awaken your intentionality this Lent. Listen to the prayers and psalms today. Notice the discomfort of kneeling – whether you kneel physically or kneel in your heart. Listen to and feel the gritty ashes being spread on your forehead, allowing the solemnity of the words wash over you. Taste the bread and the sting of wine on your tongue. As you allow the liturgy to be fresh today, take time in prayer to consider in what ways God is inviting you into deeper relationship, and what discipline you can realistically take on to get you closer to God. The liturgy today is not about sending us out with pious reminders to others about our faith. The liturgy today is about jolting our senses into understanding our humanity, sinfulness, and mortality. Today, the Church uses the Church’s most familiar tool to create just enough discomfort to help us turn our hearts and minds to God – the God whose arms are wide enough to spread on a cross and wide enough to embrace us all. Amen.
[i] Lori Brandt Hale, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 22.