As promised, I am going to address the "endurance" of Ash Wednesday. For clergy, this day probably is a test of your physical strength. And your emotional strength as well. For the first time in my life of going through the Ash Wednesday ritual of the imposition of ashes, I looked my priest in the eyes... as he finished,"... and to dust you shall return." I can only imagine what it must be like to see the faces of your congregation and to say those words to them, one after another. What would it be like if you lived in a place where there was constant violence where there is a distinct possibility that you will be burying some of these people in the next six weeks? That exists now. But in places where shootings happen frequently, I imagine, it could put a different spin on things for a priest.
The imposition of ashes was a point of contention for my dear friend, the late Rev. Lee Graham. Last year, I posted his objections to Ash Wednesday, and his assertion that he "ain't dust!" Father Lee was quite adamant that the Church was doing something terribly wrong with this practice. How dare they suggest that he, or me, or anyone, was "dust." As he noted, we are more than dust; we are children of God. And for Fr. Lee, THAT carried a taller order and should give us even greater pause to consider what it means to be a child of God?
No other clergy I've spoken to about this agrees with him. Most considered it the theological argument of a man who knew his own death was coming soon enough.
But I actually think he raises a point that I hope the Church will one day really consider about its current Ash Wednesday liturgy. It's not ordered well, and it misses the point of what I believe is the real purpose of Lent: to get yourself right with God and to consider what is it that you are holding back, clinging onto for dear life as if whatever it is you're holding onto is going to give you life? That seemed to be pretty plain in the Gospel lesson from Matthew, in which Jesus tells his disciples not to store up their treasure on earth where it can get eaten away, but to store it in heaven. "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Return to God. Put your trust and hope in God, and see what will happen to the way you view the world. And in doing this, you will also start living up to that expectation of being a child of God.
That same Gospel passage talks about the hypocrites and the people who parade their piety about for all to see instead of going into their rooms and praying in secret. Again, I think about the ashes being imposed after we've heard this message and wonder, "Did they know what they were doing when they made this choice in the ordering of the service?" Putting the ashes on our heads, and then sending us out into the world for everyone to see these ashes would seem to fly in the face of what Jesus is saying in Matthew's gospel. Perhaps, as I discussed with a priest today, the imposition should happen early in the service, BEFORE the Gospel, and then make the connection that this sign of the cross now smudged onto the forehead is not for other people's sake and for them to see you're a Christian. This is about taking up your cross and following Christ. Go into your room, aka go into yourself, and pray in secret and, as I said in the prior posting, look around to see if you are needing to pick up that room and ready it for the coming Eastertide.
I still am thinking about Fr. Lee Graham's objections to Ash Wednesday. I don't think I'll ever be able to attend the service without thinking about them. And somehow, I think wherever his soul has gone to now, it is laughing in delight that I haven't forgotten what he said to me.
For his sake, I hope in a future Book of Common Prayer there will be many more changes to the Ash Wednesday service. I hope that instead of Joel or Isaiah, we'll have a reading from Deuteronomy about "Choose Life." On a day when we are being reminded so starkly of our physical body's eventual demise, it would seem most fitting to get us thinking that we ought to "Choose Life."
Especially for these next forty days.