SUCH A LIFE AS KILLETH DEATH

In the annals of the church of my youth there was a great pastor who served for nearly three decades.  He was renowned in the community and his sermons, legend has it, filled the pews, so much so they needed to build a larger church.  The new edifice went up next to the existing building.  It was a grand space, a long nave with a skinny chancel and grand pulpit.  With regard to the particular functioning of this pastor, the new building featured two notable elements – the first, an expansive pastor’s study replete with fireplace, leaded-glass windows and balcony, located high up in the tower and only accessible via a steep staircase, so high that, obviously, accessibility and pastoral calls were not highly regarded.  The second was an idyllic courtyard carved out of the space between the two buildings and which the congregation came to call ‘the garth’, itself a lovely, archaic phrase.  This pastor, Dr. McGee was his name, wrote poems, too.  The only poem I can recall was about the Garth Garden, how much he loved the simple, solemn quietude of a space set apart which featured, in his time, a bubbling fountain in its midst.

To me, nowadays, his sermons aren’t particularly compelling — they express the best of 1920s liberal Protestantism with snippets of bible verses thrown in.  His poems, even the one about the garth, weren’t altogether timeless either.  But that didn’t matter, not at the time nor in the decades which followed.  It wasn’t what he wrote or said.  It was the feeling and, in particular, the associations folks added to those feelings which mattered, and which have made Dr. McGee’s words into phrases which seem to reside, for some among the congregation, among the classics.

GEORGE HERBERT
1593 – 1633

Distortions can all too easily morph into delusions which, over time, become distractions. I don’t know when I first came across George Herbert, the seventeenth-century English priest and poet who truly belongs among the classics, but when I did I stayed or tried to stay, to breathe his air, to remain.  There’s something that seems pure in The Country Parson, Herbert’s description of the life and character of a country priest, living out one’s vocation in a little village, taking pride in the routine acts of daily prayer, serving the common person, taking rest as the fire crackles in the vicarage hearth at the close of day.  A poet as well, Herbert is responsible for a collection of penetrating verse, The Temple.

Beware the delusion, however.  We draw too closely a connection between a quiet, country life and the ability to think deep thoughts, to write lasting words.  We, the reader, make the link between Herbert’s verse and text back to Herbert’s life.  This is as true for lovers of George Herbert or those fond of Dr. McGee as it is for the wider television audience of Downton Abbey or those who remember the Vicar of Dibley or wish for the simpler antics of Fr. Tim in the Mitford series.  Of course, anyone who’s actually read Herbert’s Country Parson is aware that I’ve painted pictures of a simple, bucolic life which is, frankly, nowhere found in his actual text, a piece of writing, it should be added, which is something of a laborious list of duties and pietistic expectations.  I’m sure life in Downton Castle, itself, wouldn’t have been as romantic as we’d like to think in our daydreaming.

Maybe it’s limited to Anglo-philes, not to mention the entirely strange caste called Episcopal clergy, but George Herbert has long exerted a real influence.  In the summer of 2004, I closed the chapter on a life in Chicago, a life I had come to treasure and enjoy, taking pleasure in that great city’s many cosmopolitan offerings.  Off I went to the Virginia Theological Seminary to do my one-year Anglican ‘dip’, as it’s been called.  A part of me (or was it my bishop?) told me that I was coming back to Chicago at the end of that year.  I could have a wonderful, formative time but I wasn’t there to plant roots.  When the time came, early on, to choose which parish I’d work at as seminarian for the year, I resisted the advice of most folks who told me to go across the river to Washington, DC, find an urban congregation and connect there.  That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, they reasoned.  That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, I heard, so maybe there’s something else.

I had spent a week before the beginning of the academic year with my aunt and uncle in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, the birthplace of the colony, locals are quick to say, but which is known by anyone who knows of St. Mary’s as the southernmost tip of the rural portion of the state known as southern Maryland.   For that week under the hot August sun, I helped my uncle harvest grapes in his vineyard and, as the day closed, we sat under a great shade tree and drank wine and ate figs, hardly a noise to be heard except the crickets, no such thing as a traffic light, only the lush colors of a sunset and the brilliant nighttime stars and moonlight.  On Sunday, I ventured with them to the Episcopal chapel which has been their worshiping community as long as they lived there and which, together with its parish church up the road, has served that community for centuries, pretty much ever since Europeans stepped onto the shores of this part of the continent, back in 1634.

“That’s where I’d like to spend this year,” I told the seminary’s director of field education.  He thought I was crazy, wanting to drive more than seventy miles one way to my field education site, but he let me do it nevertheless.  And thus began a year of leaving the busy-ness of northern Virginia and the insularity of a seminary community and hopping in my car on Saturday mornings to drive down and spend a weekend in the country.  It was election season, as I remember, and the Kerry/Edwards signs which populated northern Virginia turned, in time, to a greater preponderance of Bush/Cheney signs once you got past the Washington, DC metro area.  What I found in St. Mary’s Chapel and Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Mary’s City, however, was in fact a wonderful cobbling together of diverse people – watermen and farmers worshiping next to professors and defense contractors, those who came here recently kneeling at the same altar rail as those who can trace their family’s lineage back to the original settlers, just as countless generations of people had done in a colonial parish which feels, to us Americans, almost ancient.

True to his word, the parish priest who was, for that year, my mentor (and is now my friend), let me do almost anything and everything I could think of, which is when I also learned the truth underneath George Herbert’s Country Parson – that in a country parish you do have the opportunity and, indeed, challenge of being involved in just about everything: you’re not only the chaplain and liturgical functionary who works in the church; you wear a lot of other hats.  You’re the closest thing many families have to a commonly-agreed-upon counselor in times of dispute or need; you’re a fixture at family parties and reunions; you are known throughout the community, even when you don’t wear your collar; you have a public role and, in time, you’ll bless everything from pets to yachts to vineyards to fire trucks.  You are a public person which is the very origin of the term parson.  For me, it was a year rich in learning and formation, a profound and eye-opening year.

At the end of that academic year, not even nine months after I first stumbled upon St. Mary’s County, I packed my bags once again and headed back to Chicago.  I’d been called to serve as curate at a large urban parish, a call I was not only looking forward to but, quite honestly, a type of vocation – curate, then rector of a city parish, then who knows what – I thought I was going to be engaged in for the rest of my life.

Looking backward on my life I may have a different perspective but back then, while a curate, I was enjoying a great mentoring program but I was, as I probably told people at the time, bored.  My duties were primarily functional and limited (I was only a curate, after all) and, as is often the case, I was doted upon by some within the congregation and held up as one who could do no wrong (I wasn’t the rector, after all).  I wanted more and, yet, I also wanted less.  I felt disconnected from the ground of that place’s being, divorced from the ground of my own priestly being, too, so haughty did I become when first ordained.  In the back of my mind, I kept returning to George Herbert or, in truth, what I thought was the call of a simple, peaceful, holy, country life.  Thus it was that the celebration of my time as curate was also my sending forth to a little country parish, nestled within the hills and valleys of St. Mary’s County, Maryland.

A compelling and, yes, snarky book!

The layers of associations we’ve lumped onto figures such as George Herbert are a palpable force and, on some level, a siren song.  This needs to be admitted.  This needs to be dealt with, along with some intense denominational therapy, I’d say.  In his compelling 2009 book, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him, Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the point that we’ve vaulted an image, no less a graven image of George Herbert, not the real deal. “Herbert has been, and continues to be, used as an exemplar, the exemplar for the English parson,” Lewis-Anthony writes.  “Whether you are High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, whatever, Herbert is portrayed as the prototype of the pastor, teacher, almoner, negotiator, gentleman, scholar.  He is Ur-Vicar, the Echt-Rector.”  Further, though he was relatively unpublished in his brief lifetime, George Herbert’s fame not only grew posthumously (Lewis-Anthony: “this has always been the fast-track to canonization in the folk religion of the Church of England”) but the myth of Herbert became established lore, most interestingly, when Anglicanism was trying to find its distinct voice.  In times of conflict, uncertainty, distraction, confusion, and the feeling that we are far from the ground of our being, we yearn for simplicity, purity, holiness.  Often, in such moments, we find George Herbert or, rather, who we’ve turned him into.

Having served as a country parson for nearly six years now, I can report there is no idyllic ‘Bemerton parish’.  There’s hard work and struggle, with enough silver linings to remind me why God is calling me here.  There’s confusion and disorder and uncertainty, graced by moments of pure bliss in which I have, literally, felt God’s presence.  There’s frustration and ego and pride which sneaks in, more often than I care to admit, and, at the close of most days, a true delight in simplicity.  I knew something was up when, following one particularly contentious Vestry meeting early in my time, I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, so nagging on my soul was that one person and her downright stubbornness.  Never before moving here had I ever awoken in the middle of the night. Never.

When a friend asked about the differences between a large, urban congregation and this smaller, country parish, I shared what was, at the time, an astonishing realization – that the issues between the two contexts were eerily similar, if not entirely the same.  “That’s probably true,” she said to me, adding: “I’d guess that when you went from a larger church to a smaller one what you really traded was quantity for intimacy.”  Intimacy is a two-edged sword.  When intimately connected, as we are in small communities and country parishes, you love deeply and you fight powerfully.  In this place, I’ve suffered – and suffered publicly, out in the open, at that.  I’ve experienced crushing defeat and loss and, along with it, piercing shame and guilt.  In this place, too, I’ve celebrated growth and witnessed depth, such things which only point to the authorship of a vibrant, living God. Here, I’ve achieved things I only previously believed, hoped I was capable of and I’ve been surrounded by love and warmth to a depth and degree I never imagined existed, not the least of which through the gift of my daughter who was born here.  This place has been my cross and the working-out of my redemption, my bitterness and my land of milk and honey.  And yet it’s not so on the surface.  Not at all.  The thread which weaves my little story in and out of God’s greater one is intimacy; without it, this is just a place and these are just people and this is just a job and that struggle is no failure of mine and that success just another notch on my resume.

EDDIE IZZARD

The point Justin Lewis-Anthony makes is not only that we’ve vaulted the wrong image, not only that there is no bucolic Bemerton parish (…add to that list Dibley, Mitford, or whatever parish Downton’s in, for that matter), but that these delusions mustn’t be searched for.  I take his point as a good one: there’s a disease in our church-ness, convincing us that church is supposed to be entirely gentle and calm and peaceful and lovely.  The provocative comedian Eddie Izzard described it in this way: “Nowadays, Church of England is much more ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, much more of a hobby-type.  A lot of people in the Church of England have no muscles in their arms,” Izzard carried on in a routine, traipsing about on stage like a wimpy, dorky priest.  This is ruining our churches.  We really don’t know how to engage our world and get out there, get messy.  (For Exhibit A, I’d introduce into evidence the line-drawing of Chicago’s Church of Our Saviour – that bustling urban parish where I served as curate – hanging in my office.  The sketch doesn’t include the apartment buildings behind the church nor the ones across the street, from which vantage point the drawing is made, nor does it include any hint of cars and people on Fullerton Parkway, nor anything that might tell you it sits squarely in a densely populated section of a major city.  No, in this drawing, there’s an expansive lawn, no neighboring flats and, most beguiling, trees are sketched in where the rest of the city would, otherwise, be.)  This is ruining seminary formation, as well; too many folks are running from the demands of their busy, hectic, professional lives into what they think is a simple and peaceable job, that of a priest, and how nice it’d be to live and pray and eat in a seminary community for three blissful years.  As it turns out this, too, is ruining our churches. In the absence of bold, entrepreneurial, faithful leadership, we know what to expect.  Taking Lewis-Anthony’s words as an indictment of our failure to truly grow congregations and do evangelism – a consequence of our inability to re-thinking priestly ministry – we are guilty as charged.

And yet once the graven image of George Herbert is smashed to bits, as it surely must be, we have for the first time the opportunity to come close to the person, the lived experience of a man of God, to see what he did with his experience.  This is a really hard thing, to take George Herbert down from the library shelf.  I’m thinking in particular of one of T. S. Eliot’s last books, his 1962 contribution to the ‘Writers and their Work’ critical series, Eliot’s George Herbert.  The bulk of this thin, three-chapter work is spent tracing the connections and distinctions between Herbert and his literary and spiritual mentor, John Donne.  Comparing one of Donne’s most famous religious sonnets (“Batter my heart, three person’d God…”)  with Herbert’s poem Prayer (I) (“Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age…”) Eliot claims:

“The difference that I wish to emphasize is not that between the violence of Donne and the gentle imagery of Herbert, but rather a difference between the dominance of sensibility over intellect. Both men were highly intellectual, both men had very keen sensibility: but in Donne thought seems in control of feeling, and in Herbert feeling seems in control of thought. …[W]hereas Herbert, for all that he had been successful as Public Orator of Cambridge University, has a much more intimate tone of speech.  We do not know what Herbert’s sermons were like; but we can conjecture that in addressing his little congregation of rustics, all of whom he knew personally, and many of whom must have received both spiritual and material comfort from him and from his wife, he adopted a more homely style.”

T. S. ELIOT

Eliot comes so close, let me say, to breathing George Herbert, describing his “intimate tone of speech”, picturing him surrounded by those “whom he knew personally.”  Yet even in this there’s separation, a removal, the kindling of what becomes, in others, romanticization, delusion.  Perhaps it was the Englishness which Eliot came to treasure and, in time, adopt or that he was commissioned to write a critical piece about Herbert but, nevertheless, it strikes me as odd that there’s such a remove from the real lived experience of George Herbert – analysis so devoid of intimacy that Eliot, in a sense, furthers the delusion, imagining “homely” homilies preached to “rustics.”  Once vaulted there, Herbert resides permanently in the pantheon of the classics, rendering him as untouchable and statue-like as, to us Americans, George Washington is still.

What’s really standing in the way of growing the church is that we are downright afraid of the hard work involved in becoming the Body of Christ, the intimate and vulnerable work of becoming really human, really broken, really redeemed women and men who know themselves to be living out the story of God’s salvation.  That description probably sums up the character of George Herbert, but we’ve become so distracted with the graven image, our own projected delusions.  In his time Herbert took what he had – language – and used it in decidedly novel, penetrating ways.  Language is what we all have, in fact; it’s the only thing we possess to express that which resides within.  Of late, we’ve tried hiding behind the status quo and Christendom, but that’s falling apart.  We’ve tried High Church or Low, chasubles and copes, ashes to go on street corners, but the world has said it doesn’t care about our wardrobes or churchmanship even while it may be amused by our gimmicks from time to time.  What instead people seem to be searching is a lived story of redemption, experienced and expressed in the intimate truth-telling of real human persons.

This is vulnerable, frightening, new work.  And yet this is Herbert’s life’s work and what he modeled for us, that is, until we meddled.  Northwestern University’s Regina M. Schwartz offers, for the literary community, a new interpretation of George Herbert and, for the faith-based community, what I’d call a fitting method to renew focus.  In her essay “From Ritual to Poetry: Herbert’s Mystical Eucharist,” Schwartz argues that “in an age when the sacraments were under fire and undergoing rapid revision,” George Herbert left behind the opportunities and worldly trappings he enjoyed as a university spokesman, took up a living in a little parish, and did a poignant thing.  Boldly, he dug into his own life, warts and all, and drew connections to God’s life, which has no small amount of turbulence and pain but whose destination is always, already redemption. Herbert made the story of the interior life accessible and, most notably, sacramental.  In the seventeenth century “poetry,” Schwartz maintains, “is called upon to carry the performative power of the liturgy.”  This is a refreshingly different way to adopt the legacy of the Rector of Bemerton, considering Schwartz’s words:

“Unlike so many theologians, Herbert shows no interest in defining the meal served – in addressing the issue of the Eucharistic elements – instead, he attends to the process of conversation itself, the calling and answering.  What is at the heart of Herbert’s mystery of the Eucharist is that an utterance could ever be heard, that a call could ever be answered, an offer ever received, an invitation ever be accepted, a conversation ever take place.  For Herbert, then, an important aspect of this sacramental mystery is the mystery of language. …In [his] understanding of language, what is said and its relation to the referent – the sign to the signified – is less important than the activity of saying, than the conversation itself. …We have much to gain by framing the question as Herbert did: not economically but linguistically, in the context of conversation.  For when we shift the trope from gift to conversation, we no longer imagine an exchange of goods; instead, we think of a response that evokes a further response.  There is a world of difference.”

Realizing Herbert’s legacy should’ve been that of a man who knew, intimately, his own wretchedness and potential and one who knew, in turn, how to express with authenticity that place where God’s divinity meets our humanity, sans gimmicks, it’s all the more painful to admit that we’ve participated, we’ve directed the future of this particular illusion.

There is, indeed, a world of difference once we leave behind the graven images of cloistered garths and expansive studies; of bucolic parishes, whether Bemerton or Dibley or Mitford; of simple, blissful lives we’ll never be fortunate enough to have or find, though we may try and keep trying.  There is a world of difference when we realize that the only possibility of resurrection is found in that kingdom planted within, and that the road to unmasking that mystery takes us straightaway through our humanity, indeed, demands that we become fully human, intimate with our joys and pain, our pride and anguish, our failures and achievements, our Crosses and our Easter Days.  In this day in which none can hide behind pietistic pabulum, and which we, Jesus followers, ought no longer even if we may, no one wants our distorted signs and broken symbols, our treasured relics which speak confusion and, at times, pain to the world beyond.  I won’t be so audacious as to stake a claim for what others want, but what the world  certainly needs is our utterly true self, presented as a vulnerable and substantial offering, a sign of what new life looks like: intimately wedded, like the disciple whom Jesus loved, resting on the very heart of God. Again, for the first time in a long, long time, maybe ever, we’re coming to terms with this George Herbert, the only reason he’s made it through the ages.

WHY ASHES? PART 3, ASHES AND INITIATION

Part 3 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

………………..

There’s a deeper need under the desire for ashes.  And the church would do well to spend some time getting there.  There’s good and bad news in this.  Bad news: it’s hard work.  We’re talking about real evangelism which is a work of transformation – of meeting people where they are and helping them come to a new place.  It’s more than being present, more than gimmicks on street corners or at train stations.  Good news: it’s already in our tradition so we’ve only got to get back to what we unlearned long, long ago.

The problem is that the 20th century liturgical renewal resurrected a gross misinterpretation and, I’d say, dangerous theological message about ashes.  Historically, ashes were never intended for the vast majority of people; they were a specific and pointed sign.  When, in time, not only those who were doing penance but the entire worshiping assembly received ashes the symbol was, by definition, changed.  Ashes no longer signified that the bearer had come to terms with her spiritual, indeed, physical death.  Ashes were made into something which hinted at new life, a conflation of meanings not to mention a confusion of messages.

As I will argue over the course of this essay, this isn’t an innocuous thing.  Turning the symbol, ash, from a signifier to something pseudo-sacramental, something hinting at grace, risks two quite dangerous theological implications: first, it transplants the agent of transformation, namely, from God acting through the Body of His Son to our willing admittance of total depravity and the resultant act of smearing ash on our foreheads; and, two, it sublimates the role of those who are members of His Body to model good news and mentor others in being formed by the story of God’s salvation.

Ashes signify death or it’s better to say ashes signified it.   The Old Testament preserves apparent liturgical uses of ashes:  Mordecai dons sackcloth and ashes in the Book of Esther, after hearing the king’s pronouncement that all Jews will be killed (4:1); Job repents in the same way (Job 42:6); and Daniel prays on behalf of his people, saying “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Dan 9:3).  Even the Ninevites, those foreigners, knew to cover themselves in ashes when Jonah wandered through, prophesying their end (Jonah 3:5-6), and Jesus himself remembered that other towns weren’t as repentant as Nineveh (Mt. 11:21).  Ashes signified death.  More, ashes signfied that someone had come to terms with his spiritual and, indeed, physical death.  In his 2nd century writing on forgiveness and sin, De Paenitentia (On Repentance) , Tertullian wrote that the penitent must “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.”  Public penance was not only an established custom, but the penitent herself was, literally, covered in ashes, thus was the profound nature of this sign.  Even the powerful line in our funeral Committal service – “ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” – originated in the Last Rites of the church.  In some contexts, and as late as the 8th century, a person who was dying would be laid on the ground on top of sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes.   The priest would ask the person, “Art thou content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord in the day of judgment?”, and the dying person would reply, “I am content.”

It’s commonly agreed that by the 11th century the practice of public penance had ended and the entire worshiping community, on the first day of Lent, received ashes.  Leonel Mitchell records that “in 1091 a North Italian council ordered everyone to receive ashes ‘on Ash Wednesday,’” and there’s interesting evidence from the writings of an Anglo-Saxon abbot named Aelfric (955 – 1020): “We read in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth.  Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”  It’s further notable that Aelfric mentions ashes being strewn on the tops of their heads, no mention of a delicate smudge or nicely shaped cross on the forehead.

Probably not disconnected from the Carolingian conquests and subsequent establishment of a Holy Roman Empire, sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries, Christianity took strides greater than even Constantine and Theodosius ever imagined in becoming a religion of the empire and upholder of the status quo.  Long before that period between the 8th and 10th centuries, the idea of a forty day fast leading up to the Paschal celebration, a fast which began on a Wednesday so Sundays weren’t included [a process, itself, which took no small amount of time; Gregory Dix argues it was around the later 7th century, Hatchett, the 6th] was not originally intended to be kicked off by what some call a Christian Yom Kippur or day of atonement but, rather, a day in which the final stage of intentional preparation for lifestyle conversion was initiated, and in which public penitents and catechumens were enrolled in the ultimate stage of their preparation.

When ashes were no longer restricted to those public penitents and catechumens — and their mentors — and instead distributed to the entire faithful, such a change altered significantly and, I’d say, negatively Christian practices of initiation.  It also re-defined evangelism, having made obsolete the role of those members already in the Body who helped bring someone from where they were to where they wanted to be in Christ, much like Barnabas did with Saul/Paul.   Noting that the traditions behind the Christian liturgical use of ashes “is not a ‘Roman’ ceremony at all,” Gregory Dix maintains that “[i]t seems to have originated in Gaul in the sixth century, and was at first confined to public penitents doing penance for grave and notorious sins, whom the clergy tried to comfort and encourage by submitting themselves to the same public humiliation.”  Ash Wednesday in its most original form had everything to do with a true, heartfelt desire on the part of a sinner to change her life and adopt a new one in Christ and the boldness of those already-initiated into Christ’s Body to go backward, in a sense, and embrace their life’s struggles and sinfulness all over again in order to bring a convert to the other side, to a new life in God, the lover of all.  So Dix: “Thus Lent in the form we know does not originate as an historical commemoration of our Lord’s fast in the wilderness or even as a preparation for Holy Week and Easter, but as a private initiative of the devout laity in taking it upon themselves to share the solemn preparation of the catechumens for the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.”  When we turned Ash Wednesday from the beginning of a “private initiative of the devout laity” and opportunity for mature Christians to mentor new converts to a public inauguration of the season of Lent, we further diluted the counter-cultural and evangelical emphasis of Christianity, a pattern which has clearly lasted up to recent days, to our loss.

In earlier centuries, as it turns out, the Christian church was perfectly comfortable using the symbol, ash, to signify death because they knew that the bearer was seeking conversion via sacramental preparation, namely, baptism, and that she was going to be properly mentored, indeed, loved into a new life in Christ.  When, post-Charlemagne, ashes were distributed to everyone it reveals that the church had already forgotten that it is, itself, a distinct and counter-cultural society, a kingdom unlike the empires of this world, and we see no longer any real traces of a process of initiation nor of mentoring.  That’s good enough reason, to me, for Cranmer et al to end the practice of imposing ashes.  And yet it came back, as it was perhaps prone to do.  When in the 19th and 20th centuries ashes returned in what Hatchett called “unauthorized forms” not only was the act so utterly disconnected from any real practice of Christian initiation or mentoring – Christendom was still in full swing – but the ashes, then, were altered to carry along with them some hint of grace or good news, as is evidenced in Howard Galley’s revision of Sarum’s ash blessing prayer, a prayer which offers some measurable notes of grace in BCP 1979.

Ash was never meant to be the conveyer of grace, nor for that matter is it even logical that it could bear that meaning.  Ash was meant to point to baptism, the smudge of death which would be washed by the water of new life.  And baptism, a new life in Christ, was meant to be the moment of grace, the only and ultimate moment.  Ashes do not nor have they ever, from their earliest introduction into Christian liturgical use, conveyed an “inward and spiritual grace.”  That requires a worshiping community, not to mention the actual sacraments of new life or at least serious preparation for them.  What the early church knew and practiced was that ashes signified that someone already recognized and had come to terms with their wretchedness and hoped to attain conversion of life.  Ashes, in themselves, did not and could not inspire that process.

The early medieval reforms undid this recognition and we, in these latter centuries, simply resurrected that misinterpretation.  As I suggested earlier, this isn’t an innocuous thing.  Attempting to turn the symbol, ash, from a signifier to something pseudo-sacramental, something hinting at grace, risks two quite dangerous theological implications: first, it transplants the agent of transformation, namely, from God acting through the Body of His Son to our willing admittance of total depravity and the resultant act of smearing ash on our foreheads; and, two, it sublimates the role of those members of His Body to model good news and mentor others in being formed by the story of God’s salvation.

This, then, is a much deeper issue.  This should frame our response to a more real set of pastoral needs, needs which require serious digging, not only into our tradition but also into the life issues and desires of those who might wish to set aside the values of an increasingly secularized world and ponder what life in Christ might look and feel and be like.  This world yearns for the Good News of Jesus and, thus, the presence of those of us who are members of His Body.  I suppose we’re trying to offer that, to some degree, via Ashes to Go.  But it’s gimmicky and confusing and misses the point, due mostly to our own theological ignorance.  We need to be talking about something deeper.

As I said in my first post in this series I’m encountering lots of young(ish) adults who wonder about rootedness and life’s meaning.  Many are seeking and most are genuinely interested in the Christian way of life, and yet their primary draw is not liturgical and they’re not really looking for symbols or sacraments.  They want to know about Jesus and about how a Christian lifestyle is better, more life giving than other alternatives.  They’re looking for a church to preach and live a message of real transformation, which looks like an identity change (baptism), and which gets practiced through participation in the Body of Christ (community & Communion).  They are not necessarily looking for a confused, distorted symbol that, at least in recent centuries, has had more to do with maintaining Christendom than with pointing towards that which is, in our story, actual new life.

The more hefty question, then, is what’s on the other side of Ashes to Go?  Perhaps a renewed approach to the Christian initiation of adults, a 21st century revision of what the early church the ‘catechumenate’.  Perhaps it’s an opportunity to begin to practice the harder work of evangelism, which is more than going outside our doors and being present.  Perhaps it’s time to re-learn the ancient practices of the how the early Christian communities welcomed newcomers and helped form them into the story of Jesus, the crucified yet risen Lord, practices which bind someone to a, yes, counter-cultural but entirely life-giving way of life in Christ.

We don’t need a liturgy for this work, nor for that matter do we need the distraction of strange costumes and unclear customs on street corners.  Instead, we need nothing more than authentic presence, modeling what life looks like as little Christs.

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Part 3 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

WHY ASHES? PART 2, A CONFUSED OFFERING

Part 2 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

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For me, it started with a really basic question:  Why ashes?  As it turns out, this question has nagged Christian communities nearly since ashes were introduced as a liturgical symbol or act.  Ashes had to do with initiation and life’s conversion, and yet they quickly became something else, something, I’d say, less.  What I’d like to see is a return, not so much to the original use of ashes, but rather to the spirit of a church which knew how to practice Christian initiation of adults and, for those already a part of the body, how to mentor and model a life of genuine faith and embrace that which is truly counter-cultural in an world of competing empirical interests – be it the first several centuries or, in fact, this 21st one.

Our pastoral response to increasingly secularized people should not be a continuation, indeed, reification of a centuries-long mishandling of this day.  Our response should be a renewal of the earliest spirit surrounding Ash Wednesday, revisiting the ways in which early Christians practiced initiation and helped form women and men in the story of God’s salvation.  Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be an invitation to the already-initiated, although that’s what it’s become.  Ash Wednesday should be about lifestyle change, about conversion – baptism, at its core.   That’s why, more than likely, I’ll be connected to a worshiping community (note I didn’t say “within the four walls of a church”) on future Ash Wednesdays to come.

Truly, why ashes?  I promise this is no ‘slippery slope’ argument, but consider this: Would it be right to venture forth with the pre-consecrated Host and offer folks at a subway terminal Christ’s Body and Blood?  Or would it be fitting to stand at a street corner with a bowl of water and offer baptism?

By and large, someone’s answer to a hypothetical question about Wafers to Go, say, is more quickly arrived at than their answer to whether or not ashes can be imposed inside or outside the context of a worshiping assembly.  Thus, the first point I’d like to offer is that there’s a very clear, very basic distinction between sacraments and ashes, and that’s something the church should bear in mind, not to mention take quite seriously.  Eucharist and Baptism, of course, are sacraments.  Ash Wednesday has a pseudo-sacramental quality about it.  Eucharist and Baptism share deeper layers of meaning as well as participate much more clearly in the story of God’s salvation.  Ashes were a later addition and not an entirely clear innovation, even at the time.  A body which is broken but gives new life is not only a profound spiritual concept but is also inherently woven to other levels of meaning of the Body of Christ.  Water points to Jewish purification rituals and Jesus’ action in the Jordan, not to mention the process the people of The Way developed for initiation and faith development, a process which was counter-cultural in its larger empirical setting.  Ashes, on the surface, suggest something compelling, but the connections are feeble, the nuances too great, and the revisions and human tinkering simply too obvious.

Why ashes? was obviously a question for Cranmer and those who participated in developing the Prayer Book tradition.  Significant portions of the Sarum Blessing of the Ashes were used in compiling the rite which was was, in 1549, offered as “A declaracion of scripture, with certein prayers to bee use the firste daye of Lent, commonlye called Ashwednesdaie.”  By 1552, the rite was re-named “A Commination against sinners, etc.” At least in common parlance it was called ‘Commination’ for the bulk of the Anglican liturgical tradition, up until the liturgical renewals of the 20th century.  One notable exception is found in the proposed but unsuccessful 1689 BCP in which the High Church party made some inroads in offering the new title “The Proper Office for Ash Wednesday” and drawing a more clear connection to “the due preparation of all persons for the worthy receiving the Communion at Easter,” and which was mentioned “was of good use till superstition corrupted it.”

The Book of Common Prayer, 1549

But where Cranmer, in the 16th century, used the gist of Sarum’s rite, he retained barely a hint of ashes in the liturgy itself.  Several key phrases from Sarum’s prayer of blessing the ashes find their way, in Cranmer’s text, into the second Collect following the Suffrages, but that prayer is an appeal to God’s mercy and the phrase “…of your mercy deign to bless these ashes which we have resolved to put upon our heads, etc.” is noticeably removed.  Even the words of the anthem which would’ve been intoned in the Sarum rite while worshipers received ashes is moved, in Cranmer’s text, to a final prayer and was, in 1552, changed from “antheme” to “this that followeth”, again, with no suggestion of ashes – or what many reformers feared to be a late-medieval innovation – being distributed.  Liturgical historian G. J. Cumming argues that there’s an equally strong connection to the Quarterly Excommunication found in the Sarum rite, indicating that Ash Wednesday, for the English reformers, wasn’t so much about ashes or interior life change but, rather, public discipline and the maintenance of good order.  Marion Hatchett says as much, suggesting that “one aim of English reformers was to restore public penance as a means of discipline.”

At least by the 16th and 17th centuries, then, the meaning of ashes – note, in 1549, it’s labeled “the first day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday” – was already disconnected as a symbol denoting interior change.  In fact, retaining the act of imposing ashes, an individual act, detracted from the larger goal of developing a properly-organized, truly Christian kingdom.  Thus the ashes were sublimated, being too disconnected, too ‘superstitious’.  By the time the Prayer Book distilled what its framers would’ve called the best of the tradition, the day commonly called Ash Wednesday had mostly to do with Christian kingdom-building: made clear in the introduction to the Commination in the 1662 version, “…in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons stood convicted of notorious sins were put to open penance, and punished in this world …; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.”  Ashes had become, over time, a communal practice.  And in the English reformation it was judged not necessarily an efficacious one, and thus removed.

But it was, nevertheless, called Ash Wednesday so in many local contexts ashes were used.  For the first time in an American Prayer Book, the BCP 1979 provides a proper liturgy for the imposition of ashes, albeit as an option.  Hatchett affirms that “many felt the need of a special service for Ash Wednesday.  Unauthorized forms, which frequently included the use of ashes, had come into use and seemed to meet a real pastoral need.”  The imposition of ashes was brought back, and perhaps it never really went away, at least in local contexts.  The church simply responded to people’s needs, not dissimilar to the claims made by those who are distributing ashes to go.

But what practices, then, were brought back?  The original intent or the misinterpretation?  And what were the people saying, in truth, when they said they wanted, they needed ashes?  And was it a need worth meeting, or rather one worth getting underneath, one worth transforming?  I would argue the latter, that what we’re offering is not the original use nor is it the most fitting understanding of ashes.  Rather, there’s a deeper need under the desire for ashes.  The church would do well to spend some time getting back there, which would involve work of transformation, not merely service.

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Part 2 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

WHY ASHES? PART 1, DEEPER PASTORAL QUESTIONS

Part 1 of a 3 part post.  Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions.  Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused.  Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

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Ashes to Go is imaginative and crafty, an inspired pastoral response to a real need.  Also it shows the pluckiness of several young priests who, I imagine, grew tired hearing a church talk and talk, to no end.  So they said, “Let’s do it.”  And they didn’t wait for official sanction or more thorough thinking-through, which I’m sure is no small reason for its attraction.

Source: NBC News photoblog

It’s ironic that the Episcopal Church’s awareness that, on one level, evangelical churches grow and, two, we weren’t so wise to simply adopt uncritically the term – to spur on a decade of evangelizing, for instance – has turned out to be a fairly dysfunctional relationship with “the ‘E’ word”, as I heard it called in another diocese.  We don’t want to let it go, lest we seem completely clueless.  So we mention evangelism, but with a critical distance.  We want to be close to the idea, just not the baggage.  I’ll bet the majority of times evangelism is used in the Episcopal Church it’s something of a straw man by which our approach is, at least, more nuanced or it’s slipped into conversations after the fact, and not without some uncomfortable recognition.  We’re a lot better at doing the business of the church and then calling it evangelism.  We’re not so good at setting out, firstly, to spread the good news.

That’s why Ashes to Go is refreshing.  It’s an excuse to spend a day offering a public, Christian presence.  It’s really and truly inspired, and motivated primarily by a definitively Gospel-based reason.

Thinking about Ashes to Go, in fact, has helped me identify another, equally strong need that’s emerging, at least in my context.  Lately, I’ve been meeting lots of young adults in my community, some of whom are connected, many barely so, to the congregation I serve; others are friends of friends; others have just moved in.  This is a prosperous and quickly developing area in our state, and yet its lifeblood is defense spending (which may be about to change significantly) and rootedness and life’s meaning are top questions among people entering their 30s and 40s.  Many are seeking and most are genuinely interested in the Christian way of life; case in point, most of the baptisms we’ve done in the last year have been adults or older children whose parents are coming back to church, for the first time in a long time.  Their primary draw is not liturgical and they’re not really looking for symbols or sacraments.  They want to know about Jesus and about how a Christian lifestyle is better, more life giving than other alternatives.

I applaud the inventiveness of Ashes to Go, but I wonder what’s being offered when and if those persons whom we meet decide, in time, to enter our congregations and take us up on the offer to help deepen their lives.  I haven’t bundled up with cassock and ashes to meet the masses, thus far, because the ashes aren’t the sign I’m hoping to extend.  In fact, the original significance of burned palms ground into dust has much more to say to my pastoral context than what became of them in the tradition, a distortion which has continued throughout much of our history and is culminated in today’s, frankly, confused offering.  Maybe we, the church, could stand to revisit the spirit of those which devised the tradition of imposing ashes, and not just offer them to go but present the Christian life as one in which to stay.

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Part 1 of a 3 part post.  Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions.  Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused.  Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.