Living an Ash-Free Ash Wednesday

Posted: March 6, 2019 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

ash-wednesday-6For forty years in a row I have observed the Christian day of Ash Wednesday. I created a black paste made from the burned palms from the previous Holy Week and olive oil and smeared it on hundreds of foreheads and hands in the sign of the cross. I received and wore them myself. We recited words from the Psalms that encouraged repentance and assured forgiveness. The bells of mortality were sounded as well as the chimes of brokenness, sin and separation. Ash Wednesday is unvarnished truth-telling. Even practicing Christians avoid it like the plague. If you want to build a crowd don’t expect to do it on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. Unless you are a Catholic and Ash Wednesday is one of your “days of obligation” expect a few, not many.

I have personally treasured Ash Wednesday and promoted it wherever I happened to be serving. But this year – not needing to promote anything or participate in anything I don’t choose – I’m passing. I’m opting out not because I don’t think it is a helpful Christian observance any more, not because I am giving up it up for Lent. In fact, I may very well resume the practice next year. But today I am staying home for other reasons.

First, it’s good to not do something that is presented as necessary for living the Christian life. This is not just rebellion, shaking a clenched fist at the system. No, it is a reminder: The validity of your life, your faith, your destiny does not ride on rituals. So don’t do them ever so often just to make sure you haven’t formed some false reliance. Even though I don’t receive the ashes today God and I will move along swimmingly. I will meditate on my mortality, repent and make amends and turn around in the direction I should be going at other times, just not this day. Ash Wednesday was created for humanity, not humanity for Ash Wednesday.

Second, not participating in the Christian high holy days once in a while also reminds us that their scheduling is arbitrary. In the main I actually think there is something valuable to dramatizing the Christian tradition in a narrative, a sequence, seasons layered one upon another to tell a grand story. At the same time we have to remember that the church year has also been chopped up into seasons primarily to set Christian observances over the pagan ones that preceded them. So Christmas upstages the winter solstice and Easter the spring equinox. And that’s just a sample of holy days designed to cover up pagan ones. The list is long. The whole church year is a contrivance. Not a bad one, but a contrivance none the less. Sometimes it is important to welcome the coming of spring and nature’s rebirth after winter without overlaying it with a season like Lent that is all about introspection and marching to Jerusalem and the cross. You can march to Jerusalem some other time.

If it were up to me I would redesign the whole thing. But twenty centuries of tradition always wins that debate – even if the church is in a long, spiraling decline. By all means, let’s keep doing the traditions and practicing the rituals in the same ways even if they no longer work!

If I had the chief’s conch shell and had the authority to sound a new beginning it might look something like this:

We don’t have public worship every Sunday. Instead, people attend weekly home meals, speak of their lives, talk about God. Make it multi-generational. Always share the Lord’s table whenever we gather. In fact, the actual meal is the Lord’s Table and everyone is invited to participate. We all engage in service that heals the world around us. Some of that we do on our own and some of that we do together.

We baptize one another when the time is right – not just at certain times of the year – but whenever people feel the call, no matter what age they are. Mentors and loving friends lead people in practicing the Christian life.

We plan four “festival” celebrations a year, conveniently oriented to the seasons, if indeed the place in which you live has seasons. Abandon the common lectionary and choose our own texts and themes that match. Employ every resource and artistic medium available:

  • In the Winter keep the “Festival of Incarnation” where it is, Christmas, a season of light in the darkness. Incarnation works well here. If you want to lead up to it with a season of anticipation like Advent, go ahead. But do that in home groups with the lighting of the Advent candles at each gathering. In fact, make that the substance of your home gatherings.
  • In the Spring have a “Festival of Creation.” Talk about the unfolding Christian life. Tell all the parables of Jesus. Talk about spiritual formation. The relationship to the natural world. Assume spiritual disciplines. Make a growth plan. Talk about original grace, the goodness of creation. The mind/body/spirit unity and connection to every created being.
  • In the Summer have a “Festival of Resurrection.” Host a Holy Week retreat/pilgrimage and tell the story of Jesus’ prophetic actions, his critique of the religious and political system of his day, his suffering, trial, farewell and martyr’s sacrifice of love. Walk the people of God through the tomb on the way to a life in which God’s love always triumphs. Build a campfire, smear the soot on foreheads and remind ourselves that everything dies. And everything lives.
  • In the Fall have a “Festival of Harvest” in which we focus on the fruit of the Christian life – mission, service, compassion, social action, prophetic presence. An in-gathering of the spirit. Gather the generations of the church together and celebrate maturation and realization. Let it be a homecoming. Give thanks.

That’s it. Keep it simple. Host four common festival gatherings a year, everyone together. Live most of shared Christian life on a week-to-week basis around tables in homes. Celebrate the mission that is happening in the world individually and collectively. Discard all the secondary things. Design a community of faith for the 21st century not the 19th century. Embrace the freedom. Breathe the oxygen.

So, no ashes for me this year. I will pray for those for whom this will be deeply moving. But I will be meditating on melting snow and the way hardened hearts melt as well. I will contemplate the invisible new birth that is slumbering just under that white, taunt surface, poised and waiting to launch hope into a world sorely in need of it.

Comments
  1. Barb says:

    Amen to all of that! That’s something I’ve similarly envisioned and longed for myself. I WILL be going for the ashes this year, but only because it holds meaning to me in this season. I observe Lent as a time to draw closer, more aware and dependent on God – or so I hope. It’s never been about beating myself up. I have only experienced it as a grace-filled time, and I do it my way. I pray for Grace to rain down on us all wherever we might find it today. Love and blessings to you!!!

  2. jane mcguire says:

    VERY interesting! Like the ideas!

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