LENT: WITHDRAWAL AND EVANGELISM

One summer, I went to the Chicago Bears’ training camp in Platteville, Wisconsin, a quaint small town that for a few weeks every summer was literally overrun by orange and blue and the entire machinery of an NFL organization.  We camped at a local campground and, from time to time, made treks into town to see the practices and get autographs.  One night, we found ourselves hanging out on in a place on Main Street, feeling we were best buds with the squad of hulking professional athletes who also happened to be in the bar – letting us buy them drinks, mind you.

It’s an odd thing, these mobs of fans who gather around spring training for their favorite baseball team (or is it just a good excuse for Midwesterners to travel to Florida?) or flock to little towns in the late summer to watch their favorite football team practice.  That’s what they’re doing, after all: they’re practicing.  Occassionally, they have scrimmages and occasionally there’s something to watch, but the point is, well, practice.

Lent is Christianity’s spring training, our tradition’s practice field.  There’s nothing wrong – and everything right – with being intentional and serious about practicing.  The introduction to a holy Lent, found in the Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday liturgy (pages 264 & 265), summarizes it quite well:  “Dear People of God…” the Celebrant or Minister says, telling the story about why we do Lent, why we do what we do on Ash Wednesday, in particular, and for what we are preparing.

There’s a great deal of ‘company speak’ in these Prayer Book paragraphs.  It’s not really for public consumption and, no, for once we’re decidedly not talking about filling up our pews, bringing those who do not yet know Jesus into the church.  Lent, we say, is about “converts to the faith” being “prepared for Holy Baptism.”  They’re newbies, but newcomers who’ve already converted, who’ve already joined the body.  Lent isn’t necessarily the season to meet them on the street and bring them in.  Lent is a time to help them prepare.  We also tell ourselves Lent is about bringing back those “notorious” sinners who’ve been “separated from the body of the faithful,” reconciling them and, indeed, all of us.  Lastly, Lent is about reminding “the whole congregation,” those already active members of the body, that they, too, need “continually … to renew their repentance and faith.”

Learning to more intentionally practice the Christian faith is an important discipline and accords with everything early Christianity held dear.  The early Christians had no problem with and, in fact, thrived because they were considered outcasts and oddities, they were counter-cultural and perfectly fine with that.  That afforded them the opportunity to withdraw and gather together as a new and distinct society.  That afforded them the opportunity to develop their own spiritual and evangelistic muscles.

And yet everything shifted when Christianity was no longer persecuted but made legal (Constantine, 325 CE) and then, a few decades later, the official religion of the Roman empire (Theodosius, 380CE).  Everything changed further around the 8th century with Charlemagne and the unique coupling of the eventual establishment of the Holy Roman Empire and the Carolingian Renaissance which swept across Europe, firmly planting the ideal of Christendom in the western world’s  consciousness, a chain of events which leads up to our contemporary moment.

Sadly, we can place the theological revisions to Lent and Ash Wednesday alongside these cultural, largely political changes.  As Christianity became legal, then official, then the very definition of the status quo, so too did Lent become less counter-cultural, less inward and more about maintaining good order and a Christianized society; likewise, so too did Ash Wednesday become less and less about authentic, heartfelt repentance and more and more about community norms and practices.

It’s ironic that behind the movement to make Lent and, in particular, Ash Wednesday so much more public, so much more accessible, so much more a sign of what we can bring to this world there’s an implicit vaulting, once again, of the ideals and norms of Christendom.  When some among us realized they weren’t coming to us any longer, at least not so much on this inaugural fast, we went out to find them and bring them back.  Further, we brought a veritable symbol of the establishment, carrying out into the public square the very Christendom so many of them had long ago left, some quite intentionally so.  “You know where you were supposed to be today!” I’m afraid Ashes to Go implicitly insists, like a liturgical father berating his flock.  Sure, some respond positively; some are no doubt appreciative.  But many were just too busy to come to church in the first place and most probably didn’t make the connection between the obvious smudge of inescapable death and the real gift of new and life in Christ.  The creativity [and as I’ve written elsewhere I do think Ashes to Go is creative] of this movement is a good spark for a day or two, but making disciples and empowering the body of Christ isn’t done in a flash.

Making disciples is done in the quieter, less visible work of practice.  There’s nothing wrong with withdrawing, at least for a six week season of intentional spring training and spiritual preparation.  In this world in which we think we need to be ‘on’ all the time, 24/7; in this culture in which we, the current incumbents of the institutional Christian church, feel like it’s our fault that average Sunday attendance isn’t what it was, say, in 1957, it’s okay for at least a few weeks to quiet the anxiety and set aside the marketplace and deal, first and foremost, with ourselves, our own struggles and blessings, our own failures as well as our gifts.

In fact, there’s everything right with withdrawing for a season.  Try as we might, the images and symbols we’ll inevitably display still bear the unmistakable sign, for many, of Christendom, of establishment; we haven’t yet developed the language of a counter-cultural society.  The world needs vibrant, living members of Christ’s body; the “saints” the writer of Ephesians talked about, reminding us that the reason God gives a multitude of gifts is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

Sometimes withdrawing for a season to train and practice, to develop new language and more subtle and no less revolutionary skills is much more important than spinning our wheels and expending more energy.  The circus of this world and the draw of others will be there, sure enough, and there’s nothing wrong – and everything right – with the quiet, less visible, diligent, demanding, interior work of practice.

BECAUSE WE HOPE TO TURN AGAIN – Ash Wednesday, 2014

If you could go back in time, say, to your teens or your twenties and, knowing everything you do today, live within your person at that time, and experience what you experienced, would you do it?  At first, your answer might be, “Of course!” You might be reminiscing about those halcyon high school days or those late nights and good friends in college.  But do you also remember the awkwardness and confusion?  The sense of wanting to move on in life but also the really dumb decisions you made?

You might still do it.  You might not.  Whatever your answer, this should be a hard question.

In some ways, that’s what we’re doing today.  We’re not just lamenting our own sins and wretchedness.  In fact, we make a great mistake if we think that Ash Wednesday is just about our sins and sinfulness.  In part, many of us are already over on the other side; many of us know for what we are preparing and for whom and why.  The season Ash Wednesday inaugurates, Lent, is an intentional, forty-day preparation for the only joy that can worthily be called by that name – resurrection, new life, Easter.  We are already Easter people, already there, already set free.  And we know it.

So why go back?  Why on Ash Wednesday, do we deal with our sins and our brokenness, that which we have failed to do and that which we have left undone?

We go back because this world needs us to.  Well, not so much us, but this world needs whose we are.  Having been gathered as this unique and counter-cultural society called “the church,” having died to our old lives and brought into a new life in Christ, we are no longer who we once were, although that self hasn’t gone away; we live no longer only to ourselves but, now, we live to God.  Now, we are his body in this world, the very Body of Christ.  The 16th century Spanish Carmelite, Teresa of Avila, said it best: “Christ has no body but yours: no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”

That’s precisely how and why we can go back.  We know we are already redeemed, already loved, already “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever,” as we do so profoundly in the service of Holy Baptism.  Knowing that, we can go back.  Those sins and that wretchedness you confess today is what you have done or have failed to do, and it’s who you are apart from Christ.  But that is not who you are, at the deepest level of your being.  That’s not who you are in Christ.  You know, and know at your core, what Paul said in his letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil.  4:13)

The reason so many don’t go backward, don’t revisit their past and deal with their shortcomings is because they’re afraid they’ll get stuck there.  I don’t think it’s inconsequential that T. S. Eliot began his collection of poems, “Ash Wednesday,” with the following stanzas:

Because I do not hope to turn again

Because I do not hope

Because I do not hope to turn …

Because I do not hope to know again

The infirm glory of the positive hour

Because I do not think

Because I know that I shall not know

The one veritable transitory power

Because I cannot drink

There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Many are afraid to go deep because, like Eliot wrote, they “do not hope to turn again.” But not us.  This, then, is the mystery of Ash Wednesday.  This is not a day in which we dance around our sins, naming them lightly or in a quick rush while we’re off to our next step on our day.  We don’t brush over our past unfaithfulness or what or whom we’ve ignored, quickly adding pardon and hope and a promise of something better.  No, this is a day when we dig and dig deeply into our own struggles and suffering and pain.

We do this because we know we won’t get stuck there.  We do this because we know we are not stuck there.  We do this because, yes, because we are already Easter people.

In fact, doing it the other way around is confusing and, frankly, a bit dangerous theologically, spiritually.  When we turn this day, as many have, into a day to be present at train stations or commuter bus stops or wherever the marketplace is – dispensing Ashes-to-Go – the tendency is to cut short this soul searching, to add a note of blessing and renewal to these ashes, these signs of unmistakable death.  Just look at what the Book of Common Prayer has already done; specifically, the (optional) prayer over the ashes on page 265:

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

This is liturgical theologian, Howard Galley’s, very 20th century revision of a much earlier, medieval prayer from the Sarum rite.  The original prayer is much heavier, much darker, much more concentrated on our sins and, for my taste, much more honest.  You can see the similarities and the very real differences between the two prayers in the original, here:

God, you desire not the death but the repentance of sinners: Look kindly upon the fragility of our human condition, and of your mercy deign to bless these ashes which we have resolved to put upon our heads as a token of humility and for the obtaining of pardon, that we, whom you have admonished are but ashes and know that for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust, consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.

Galley’s revision speaks of “our mortality and penitence,” but leaves out the reminder that these ashes are “token[s] of our humility and for the obtaining of pardon.”  Galley’s prayer skips over Sarum’s most cutting line, “for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust,” and entirely replaces the result of the prayer: today, the result is grace (“…that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life”); in the original, it is hope (“…consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.”)

We make this turn, this Ash Wednesday turn inward to deal straightforwardly with our sins and sinfulness, not because we know the why and wherefore of grace – that’s the greatest mystery of all; in fact, if we think too long about grace we’ll realize we don’t deserve it.  No, we make this turn because we are a people of hope.  We have walked through the fallen-ness of our lives and, we suspect, we will from time to time still fall short of the glory of God, but we also know we are already redeemed, already set free, already capable of so much transformative power – not because of our sins but in spite of them, and only because God in Christ loved us first.  That’s why we can go back, not because we want to nor because there is good back there, but because we can, in Him.

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.

………………..

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.

………………..

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.

………………..

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.

………………..

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.

………………..

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.