Frankly, I’ve never been a grand proponent of ashes. Growing up in the 60s, in the non-Catholic part of the air base chapel, the whole idea and practice of the “imposition of the ashes” was as foreign as praying to the Virgin Mary or swinging the incense ball up and down the aisle. I had, and have no issue with that worship, but it simply was never something that I nor my family ever participated in. Of course, we never went to confession, either, nor did we fast or even give up something for Lent. Truth be told, at that time in American Protestantism, even marking different “seasons” of the church year, outside of perhaps Advent, was on the fringe of my religious life.
So when I went to seminary and took courses in worship, it was the beginning time of a new movement in protestant worship. Basically there was a push to move further and further back into what was almost “primitive” Christian worship, with lots of mystery and lots of words and lots of different types of actions. I have to say that it was one part of my theological education that I learned, but did not adapt. Being so formal, and tied to words almost on a script just did not float my boat. I wasn’t anti it all – I guess I was never that “high church” that it required.
So fast forward nearly 44 years later, and today is Ash Wednesday. Seems like just yesterday it was Epiphany, and Mardi Gras was happening, and now today, everyone is supposed to go “get ashes.” I remember the first time I saw people with smudges on their foreheads. I wanted to quietly tell them, “Uh, you have something smeary up there…” After so many years, I think I have figured out my discomfort in the ashes. I understand its symbolism – “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, -- but my question is why the ashes are smudged on the forehead of the individual. The truth is, if you have something on your forehead, only until you look in a mirror will you know that it’s there. Imagine instead if you were to put the mark of the cross on the back of both hands – every time you did something, you would be reminded of the ashes to ashes, of your own mortality and temporary time on this earth. Frankly, to put it on your forehead, if not you’re not careful, could instead say to the world “Look at me, what I’ve done…” It could be a witness, but could also lead slowly into boasting about an act of piety.
But let’s set all of that aside, and talk about ashes for few more moments. The whole purpose of the ritual is to remind the person that, no matter how powerful or talented or wealthy or influential you may be – you’re gonna die. One day, your heart will stop, your breathing will cease, and what was once you on this earth, making all sorts of differences, will stop as well. It’s there, at that moment, that we are invited to begin the Lenten journey. Just as Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem, and slowly made his way to what would eventually bring his death, so we too are invited – compelled – to walk along, and just as it happened on Shrove Tuesday, where we were called to clear away -- to shrive – the meats and the fats of a normal time, so each step we take these 40 days also gives us the opportunity to drop down by the side of the road those things that we are better off not carrying. Things like pride and jealousy, and all the other “stuff” that keep us from following Jesus, no turning back, no turning back. Lent is indeed a somber time, a quieter season, because we are called to think – to be intentional about how we will live as holy and loving followers of Christ. What’s in the way? What distracts me from doing and living and responding the way I could?
One thing I think is fascinating is that the ashes used in worship today are meant to come from the burning of the palms from the celebration of Palm Sunday the previous year. As the crowds cheered and waved the branches, shouting Hosanna to the King as he went into Jerusalem to die, so now we take the same green, lively palms, now dried up and dead, and burn them until there is nothing left, and then mix them with olive oil and smear it on each other’s foreheads. There’s not much to laugh and dance around with that, is there? Ash Wednesday is the time to take up the burden of the season, again, so we can begin getting rid of everything that makes the walk un-walkable.
But you see, it’s easy, even with this explanation, to fall into an accidental, unthinking “going to get ashes” action. I recall a colleague of mine who tried to do the whole ashes preparation thing, but he decided to burn up some notepaper instead. It made a lot of smoke in the church office, but made more of a mess than a worship tool. So, he looked around and found – he thought – what was the perfect answer: copier toner. It was nice and black and had a fine grain, and it would stick well on foreheads.
It stuck a bit TOO well. As he ground the toner into the skulls of his parishioners, the toner took up residence, and as people went to wash it off at the end of the day, the residue remained, and remained, and remained – not quite for all of Lent, but certainly for a few days!
Of course, the discipline of Lent invites us to “give up something” for the duration of the season. The reason for this is to show our devotion to following Christ. It also helps us get clear about what things in our lives may even be put ahead of Jesus, and take up the bulk of our time, energy and love. So, when you select something, make it something that you truly do enjoy or love, so that there would be an honest sacrifice on your part. I mean, for me to say that I’m giving up lima beans for Lent, or that I won’t smoke for the 40 days are both pretty silly, since neither of them that I want to have anything to do with anyway! I won’t suggest what “thing” that may be, because it would all be filtered through my own heart – but you know what it is already, that takes you even a few steps away from following Christ.
However you decide to address the season, whether “high church” or in another way that is yours alone, my encouragement is that you do something – that these days to come will make a difference to you, and that the celebration on April 4 of Easter – which I’m sure you have already figured is 40 days, PLUS the Sundays, which are never meant to be fasting times – will find even more rejoicing in your own heart as you celebrate resurrection, even more in love with Jesus.
Word for the day: recherche. Pronounced (with a French accent) reh-sher-SHAY. In a French/Latin kind of mix, cherche means “to search” and the re, means again and again. The Latin word, circare, from which we get both circus and circle, means “to wander hither and yon,” or to search all over kingdom come for something. So the word, recherche, really means “something of rare or obscure excellence.” Something recherche is worth searching for, but is rarely found, and never found without a search in the first place. Let your Lenten journey be recherche…
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.