It's Ash Wednesday

Two years ago I wrote about my ambivalence in observing Ash Wednesday with my church. As I noted then, it has nothing to do with Ash Wednesday, which I love, but with how my non-liturgical church celebrates it. Specifically, the imposition of ashes is "added on" to an existing church service (our traditional Wednesday night bible service) and is something you can "opt in" or "opt out" of. Those two things, for the reasons I wrote about, bother me.

Two years ago I put my ambivalence aside and went forward for the imposition of ashes. And it was a mess. Not messy with the ashes, but messy with the theology.

I'm a Winter Christian which means that lament is a pretty big part of my spiritual experience. But by and large the general tone of worship in evangelical culture tends to privilege the Summer Christian experience of unmitigated praise. The theology that informs this preference is often triumphalistic and symptomatic of what is called an over-realized eschatology. What is an over-realized eschatology? It's rushing ahead to heaven, victory, happiness and Easter. A refusal to sit with the Fall, brokenness, lament and Good Friday.

In the face of all that unmitigated praise Ash Wednesday stands out for us Winter Christians. Here is a ritual of dust, lament and ashes. Here's a worship experience that will resonate deeply with our souls.

So I went forward for the imposition of ashes. As a Winter Christian I was looking forward to the ashes, having them etched on my forehead with the sign of the cross as the words were intoned:
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust that you shall return."
Words to stir the heart of every Winter Christian.

But guess what? When you are "adding on" the imposition of ashes in a non-liturgical church people can go off script. Because we are often unaware that there is a script. And without a script--a liturgy to follow--the people leading us can improvise and say what they want to say, what they think is fitting. And when that happens more often than not people default to the dominant chord of Summer Christian spirituality.

So I went forward and when the ashes were imposed on my forehead the words I got where these:
"Jesus loves you."
Good gravy. That's a great sentiment, but I'm not coming forward on Ash Wednesday to hear "Jesus loves you." I hear that message every Sunday. What I want to hear, what my Winter Christian heart was looking for, was the hard stuff. The undiluted full-of-death stuff. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust that you shall return." But even on Ash Wednesday we struggle to get those words out. They are too scary, morbid, and depressing.

But that's exactly the point. And exactly why we need to stay on script. Otherwise our fears of death and brokenness cause us to rush past the ashes and into the happy place where all is cozy, sweet and comforting. We don't need an over-realized eschatology on Ash Wednesday. Easter, sure. But it's Ash Wednesday.

So this year, when I go forward, I'd like us to be on script. And I think we will be this year (the service is entitled Memento Mori). No chickening out. Yes, Ash Wednesday can be depressing, even morbid, but we need to say it. We need to hear it.

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust that you shall return."

It's Ash Wednesday.

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22 thoughts on “It's Ash Wednesday”

  1. I hope your service today is more "on script"  One of the good things about the Episcopal Church *is* the script.  And the Seasons of the Church Year make us look at difficult "Winter Christian" things whether we want to or not.  The Holy Week journey is difficult, yet it makes Easter all the more glorious.  Have you ever been to an Easter Vigil service Richard?  Have a Holy Lent.

  2. It seems to me most Churches which do not follow a liturgy generally have trouble with lament. Yet spending time in the dark valleys is not only a realistic expectation, but also healthy for our growth. For me Ash Wednesday services bother me less than a "celebratory" Good Friday service. That makes no sense to me.

  3.  I haven't been to an Easter Vigil. It's on my liturgical bucket list. May you, also, have a Holy Lent.

    Fun note in that regard. Jana and I both greeting each other this morning with "Happy Ash Wednesday." Then laughed as that didn't quite sound right. :-)

  4.  I have been away from church for 10 years and your blog has become my "happy place".  This is an oxymoron because I am a "winter Christian" and never knew the term.  I am a melancholy, sad sack, Eeyore type of person. As a child, I attended Lutheran and Episcopalian churches with my parents.  As an adult I have attended evangelical (mostly Baptist) churches for 25 years. At some point the church lost it's purpose for me.  I felt it was a social club, a minder of my affairs and sins, a place I had to keep up with the Jones. At this point in my life I need prayer and penance, not my brothers keeper. Reading your blog makes my soul rest and yearn for the unspeakable gift God has given, that is - peace.

  5. Having spent time in what I would call a semi liturgical church, I saw people avoiding Lenten services, saying "I don't like them.  They're so depressing."  A small number would come to the Ash Wednesday service, but it was made clear that imposition of ashes was "optional" and some would not go forward.  Then what's the point?  Have you ever considered writing a book on the theology of "optional"?

  6. 'Jesus love you'. Seriously?!?

    Our liturgical calendar helps us imagine we are living the sequence of Jesus's life in real time. Jesus was entering his Desert of Doubt. He was pondering all this weight of loving us. He is not yet on the Criss, his time in the wilderness was the beginning of his journey towards the Cross. 

    We Anglicans can cherry pick with the best. But we stay on script with Ash Wednesday.

    (Lent was, of course, not a concept lifted from scriptures. The English used to use the Latin word Lent for Spring. The idea of fasting also came from the idea that food was more difficult to come by at the beginning of Spring (mid-Winter).Blessings!

  7. I think there is a book to be written about this, as I think it's symptomatic of a larger issue in churches: the privileging of choice over community.

  8. Are Americans more likely to be summer Christians as an expression of an upbeat, aspirational national temperament? Not that we've cornered the market on summer Christianity, but it seems so natural that this should find its way into religious expression... But one of the things I need is a place, a structure or container for lamentation... Your marriage to a summer Christian sounds healthy, like introverts and extroverts marrying and enriching each other's ways of being. We need to learn to remain present together in sorrow, disappointment, complaint, which are natural, appropriate responses to some of the events and stages of life. It's as perverse to be incapable of lamentation in its season as it is to be incapable of joy. 

  9. To be a gadfly: I don't think I could stand being in an anti-liturgical community for more than a quick visit, so I appreciate and can't fully imagine what it means to work through the issues in that kind of environment. However, I don't see obligatory communal acts (like obligatory ashes) as creating a true sense of communal unity, and it has always still felt awkward to me. Genuine communal unity seems to be a more profound and difficult thing to achieve. It seems to me to be the kind of thing that would be beautifully expressed by a community in which some feel compelled by conscience to avoid ashes, others feel compelled by conscience to take them, and everyone loves the "weaker" of the two "factions" unreservedly (with each group even probably defining weaker in opposite ways!) Paul's letters deal with exactly this kind of dynamic a lot, and I don't think the dynamic ever goes away, whether the ritual observance has been standardized or not. Maybe we should welcome these moments of awkwardness and divergence of conscience as opportunities to foster a deeper sense of community, bonded together by something even more profound than Ash Wednesday rituals.

  10. we did ashes to go and it was so awesome.  There was a little conversation, just to make sure they weren't freaked out (somehow, people standing outside a hotel in cassock and surplice is sorta scary, particularly when  you have a big creepy ash cross on your forehead).  We said a modified version of the prayer in the proper service for ash wednesday in the BCP and did the imposition of ashes with the customary words.  Everyone who came to us sought us out, knew about ashes to go, was really happy to have us there because they were working or traveling for work.  Being warm and fuzzy would have been soooo inappropriate.  slightly goofy and non cultish was what I did and it was OK I think given the number of people who gave us sort of scared looks.  

  11. I hope my comment above does not offend. I re-read it and realize that I also had a starting point with a HUGE learning curve in my own understanding of the meaning of Ash Wednesday and how it fits within the liturgical year. 

    I did not grow up in a liturgical tradition or culture but was introduced to it about 25 years ago. Firstly, through the Catholic traditions, then the Methodist and Lutheran before becoming an Anglican. You might say my system was sort of shocked into it, as I have learned, very awkwardly, how to navigate through the liturgy as a church musician. As it was not second nature to me, for a while I felt like I was going through a liturgical mine field -- when to play, when to have the choir and/or congregation stand to sing, what to sing, what and when definitely NOT to sing  -- a whole treasure trove of embarrassing moments were awaiting to embrace my liturgical faux pas! 

    Richard, I can relate to your 'messy with theology' thought. It has taken me years to catch up with my friends and colleagues who were brought up in a liturgical tradition. (Not to say the CofC is without its own form of evolved liturgy!) It has been a wonderfully enriching part of my own faith walk and has required in-depth study and practice on my part. In some ways, because I was not born into a liturgical tradition it has helped me understand the confusion and excluded feelings those from the outside seeking to come in have, and so I pray I can help them through the 'mechanics' as lovingly and patiently as others have helped me. It does help tremendously to have a good foundation in the theological constructs of numerous liturgical patterns before they are presented as fresh expressions by church leaders for their congregations to practice. Especially in churches abundantly over-flowing with biblical scholarship.  

    My initial comment above was a reaction in jest and in context with how I imagine the 'Jesus loves you!'-Ashing-Method would be culturally received here (UK) if our vicar ever decided to do that! :)  Actually, he passes the ashes out in small containers and we share them round as we apply the ashes to each other and speak the words 'Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.' We then follow this with the Eucharist. 

    The beauty of Ash Wednesday is it does not have to be depressing. It can show how Jesus distilled his time and thinking in the wilderness to be ever bold in the face of the Pharisees who tested him and tried to set him up when they brought before him the woman caught in adultery. As a prelude to our reading tonight from John 8.1-11 were these words to reflect on:
    'Here, the religious leaders live out exactly what God has said he hates in Isaiah. Jesus protects the woman not by overlooking her sin, but by joining her detractors to her in a common humanity. As they face their shame, a space is created for the woman to face hers.' (Have you ever noticed that the first of the church guys to leave, one by one, were the oldest ones? That jumped out at me tonight.)

    Ash Wednesday can teach us how to celebrate our reconciliation to God and to each other -- and how it comes full circle because Jesus does indeed love us through the frailties of life.  

    (Oh, and Winter Christians can guide Summer Christians through the different, ahem...nuances of celebration for Lent. Small smiles are sometimes allowed.)

    Please do a follow up to this post, Richard. I hope you and Jan had a blessed Ash Wednesday experience.

  12. Great post that gets right to the heart of Ash Wednesday.  As much as I love to hear "God love you," we lose the grace in that declaration if we fail to follow it up with "in-spite of..."  Ash Wednesday is the "in-spite of."

  13. Hi Dr Beck.  Thanks for all your great posts. Yours is the only blog I read!  But when I comment is usually a pushback or question so I wanted you to know that I am a big fan but for some reason I only comment when I potentially disagree.  Sorry about that.

    Anyway, you say that Summer Christians have an "over-realized eschatology".  Would that mean that Winter Christians have an "under-realized eschatology"?  I can understand why someone might vacillate between being Summer or Winter just like we all experience various seasons of joy and grief (of various depths and lengths).  But perhaps there is a balance between the two which is ideal for a normative state?  Must one choose between Winter & Summer or is there perhaps some way to live within the tension of the two, in which case our eschatology would then be "properly-realized"?  :) 

  14. No worries. I think that's a great point. Pondering it, I do think that you could characterize Winter Christians as having an under-realized eschatology, particularly if they are deep Winter versus more Autumnal. How to "balance" the two? That's an interesting question. Is the balance something I, as an individual, should do? Or is this something that is balanced communally, as members "make room" for the experiences of others?

  15. Amen and amen.
    I grew up independent Baptist, was part of a non-denom plant in college, and in seminary began to be introduced to the beauty of the historical liturgy of the Church(es). Thank you for your words concerning the holistic nature of the liturgy; of its drawing us into disorientation of the melancholy of Lent; of its intentional preparation for Easter.
    Most of us from the Evangelical world would rather have our individual right to happiness than the communal remembrance and practice of Lent. 

  16. I found my way here through your post at Jesus Creed. Greatly enjoyed your post. Ironically, Christianity Today has an article in the current issue - Are You Worshiping the Idol of Open Options?

    Here's the link.

  17. Richard Rohr has been telling me (in his books and audio cds) for a few years that life with/in God is participatory.. and that sounds all lovely and good until your church family starts acting like a real family full of crazy uncles and disfunctional siblings.. so recently I'm learning and practicing how to love when I don't want to.. and how to sit in tension and conflict with Grace... or.. I guess both can be titled, Lessons on waiting with/for God. But I wonder if the symptoms such as a general inability to be interiorally quiet (dare I say meditate), such as an intense disdain of self-examination...are being reflected in the church community...  if we can't connect inwardly, or choose not to, then wouldn't those symptoms manifest outwardly?  or am I mixing up cart and horse?

  18. First off, I just accidentally ran into your blog. I'm even sure how I got here, but I'm glad I did.

    This post struck a chord with me because I have always found meaning in Ash Wednesday and lent.

    attend a United Church of Christ congregation, although admittedly I
    still identify with the "Catholic things" of my youth as well as Episcopal things (a more recent realization). But I
    really love the minister at my church.  I am definitely a "winter"
    Christian, but I'm married to a very much "summer" Christian. My wife
    attends local Assemblies of God Church. She is "born again" and every
    once in a while she can't help but ask if I've "accepted Jesus Christ as
    (my) 'Lord and Savior."  I don't even know how to answer that question. She on the other hand, has no place for the liturgical and sees Lent as something archaic and "Catholic."Most of what is written below is stolen from something I wrote a few weeks back . . .

    "The shell must be cracked open
    what is inside is to come out.
    you want the kernel,You
    must break the shell.We
    must learn to break through thingsif
    we are to grasp God in them." - Meister EckhartAs
    a small child I appreciated Lent. We ate fish and fasted between meals on
    Friday's. And I was intrigued by relatives who spent weeks trying to stop
    smoking, or drinking, utilizing new found strength they didn't seem to have
    during the rest of the year. That strength was lost once Easter came and went. I
    would "give up" candy, in a similar fashion. Nonetheless, I learned to
    appreciate asceticism. In
    my teens, I began to actively and passively turn away from the my Catholic
    upbringing and to wrestle with the god of my parents. A god who left us
    guilt-ridden, bound and weighted by our failures and shortcomings. Guilty, with
    no chance for escape, or renewal. Yet
    I never really turned away from Lent. As a (sometimes) church-hopping,
    non-practicing Catholic I still observed. Not necessarily the "meatless" Fridays
    or the fasting, but the time of reevaluation. And of course . . . the
    asceticism. I gave up smoking, drinking, and pizza. In
    my 20s and 30s, I embraced Buddhism and I celebrated Lent as a sort of Buddhist
    universalist. I wrestled with "non attachment." Oddly, or maybe not, it was
    through Buddhism that I came to a better understanding of grace and real renewal
    through spiritual means. I began to see the past in less than static, material
    terms and the present as the eternal. The guilt of past transgressions was to be
    acknowledged but not clung on to. Buddhism empowered me to question my spiritual
    beliefs. To be a skeptic. And to therefore be skeptical of even my own
    skepticism. Through
    Thích Nhất Hạnh, Paul Knitter, The Gospel of Thomas and my skepticism of my own
    skepticism, I began to really reevaluate my ancestral/cultural/traditional
    religious beliefs. And I began to see things differently than I had before.
    Where I once saw "grace" as sort of cheap path to salvation, where one could be
    "saved" or "born again" without ever facing another challenge and/or opportunity
    for spiritual growth; I now saw the opportunity available in the eternal present
    to reborn - over and over and over again. And where I once understood
    "repentance" as a way of desperately begging god for forgiveness, I instead
    opened my heart and mind to metanoia, and the possibility to leave our old
    selves behind: like a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, and like Jesus on
    Easter Morning. I
    love Lent because it is about letting go of who we think we are. It is about dying to our old selves.
    It is about softening our hearts so that we can experience real love. So that we
    can be born again on Easter morning.

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