BLESSING WHAT GOD IS HAVING US WITNESS

The other big news to come out of Episcopal-world / South Carolina-edition this week is that the Rt. Rev’d Charles vonRosenberg, bishop of The Episcopal Church in SC (that is, those who’ve remained faithful to The Episcopal Church), “on July 8 granted permission for priests to bless the committed relationships of same-sex couples in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” according to an Episcopal News Service (ENS) report. “In authorizing the use of [The Episcopal Church’s 2012 authorized liturgy,] ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,’ vonRosenberg gave permission for priests to respond pastorally to couples who are in committed relationships, including those who have been married in states where same-sex marriage is allowed.”

CHARLES vonROSENBERG Bishop Provisional of South Carolina

This is big news, indeed. It represents not only a wider movement toward greater inclusivity but also, and chiefly, a process which has been grounded in substantial theological reflection over many, many years.  And that long and significant process has everything to do with the Holy Spirit’s apparent progress. As ENS reports, “Since [2012], more than 60 of the 110 dioceses of The Episcopal Church have allowed some form of liturgy for blessings of same-sex relationships. Regionally, 15 out of the 20 dioceses of Province IV – an area covering nine southeastern states – now permit the blessings. In the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, Bishop Andrew Waldo announced May 8 that he would permit the blessings.”

Then again, life-long covenants and the theology of human relationships is much more clearly a gospel issue than, say, property disputes – that being the other matter going on currently in South Carolina.

Some responded to my previous post about that other matter in SC – in which I called out the knee-jerk reaction of the anti-liberal conservatives as well as, in turn, the foolhardy anti-conservative liberalism – saying that, in doing so, I was choosing sides against justice. Sadly, they only prove my point that theological liberalism – which has been a genuinely orthodox Christian movement, yet hardly practiced in our church, or any church, today – is profaned nowadays, made into little more than an issue-determined litmus test for membership. That’s just sad.

But this isn’t that. This is a story worth telling.

That the majority of Episcopal dioceses have already approved this rite for blessing same-sex relationships, including most of the dioceses in the American southeast, and that ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant’ is meeting with such support is truly good news. On one level, it says that we are better able to move forward toward justice and inclusivity when we deal with more straightforwardly theological matters (not property, that is, even though the latter’s part of our mission, too). Accordingly, there will be deep conversation and prayer at 2015’s General Convention when the issue of marriage, itself, comes up, but let no one say this is the first time they’re hearing about it, nor let anyone say that the church hasn’t done sufficient and prolonged theological work around it.

I am reminded, on yet another level, that a huge part of the way the Holy Spirit’s helping usher forth this wider move toward justice is by bringing up such a topic not as an issue but an invitation, not as a political litmus test but, rather, a bright and open space in which we, God’s people, may ask how and in what ways God is blessing the lives of all God’s people: straight and gay couples alike; those who desire to have children, say, and those who wish to have no children, all the same.

Here’s a case in point:

I’m preparing to celebrate a wedding this weekend, and have been working with this couple for a long time. They are a wonderful couple. They know who they are and they know who God is calling them to become through their marriage. Specifically this weekend, they also know why and for what greater purpose they’re gathering friends and family. Like every other couple whose marriage I’ve celebrated, they live together; in fact, they have for 14 years! Like every other couple I’ve worked with (since 2013), when it came time to start planning the wedding liturgy, I showed them ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.’ And like every other couple since, they, too, adore and resonate with this newer language. They happen to be a man and a woman.  But this new liturgy, yes, for blessing same-sex relationships, is just as relevant to opposite-sex couples who are preparing to pray themselves into a life-long covenant as it for same-sex partners.

The language is more justice oriented, echoing profound themes of partnership and covenant. Compare the opening words of ‘The Witnessing & Blessing’ (scroll down to page 5), with those of the marriage service from the Book of Common Prayer .

See it? “A relationship of mutual fidelity and steadfast love,” instead of “the bond and covenant of marriage.” Or: “Christ stands among us today, calling these two people always to witness in their life together to the generosity of his life for the sake of the world,” strikes a different tone than “marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” Here, now, there is language of mutuality, partnership, balance, equal support, and, of course, love. Meanwhile, we’re still talking about a life-long, monogamous commitment.

I want to scream whenever I hear someone say “gay unions ruin the institution of marriage,” for, in fact, what I’m finding is precisely the opposite. I’m finding that, finally, all God’s people now have adequate language, fresh language to name eternal, holy truths.  We’re in a unique and rich moment as a church today. In the wake of a prolonged theological and prayerful conversation about human relationships and sexuality, following decades of discerning whether and how we are called to experience God in this work and these commitments, we are now able to utter new words which are truly new life for all couples — whether young or old, gay or straight, even those who are single and discerning or graying near the ears and married for 50+ years.

As we pray in that wonderful collect, “In the Morning” (BCP p.461), we have been given “the Spirit of Jesus” and, as such, our “words [are made] more than words.”  They are being made into new life.

WHERE’S THE SACRIFICE IN THE “SACRIFICE OF PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING”?

I’m struggling or, I’ll be honest, I’m continuing to struggle with the self-centered, fairly vapid ideas on the marketplace today about how people go about growing congregations or doing Christian ministry.

My particular lens, these days, involves the work we’re currently engaged in at St. George’s, Valley Lee: expanding our music program and helping take our worship life in new directions.  I’m finding a rich world of music and worship thought-leaders, both within and beyond The Episcopal Church, but most often there’s this underlying implication, this nagging insistence connecting growing music and growing churches.

Sure, those connections are there.  But they may not be related causally.  And I suspect they’re not linked as much as we might think.

Life-giving worship has everything to do with what the Prayer Book calls “the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” that very phrase which is grounded in scripture (Hebrews 13:15, Psalm 100:4) and which Archbishop Cranmer himself inserted in the original text.  That worship is a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” reminds us that the church is not about us — not about re-sacrificing Christ on the altar, not about a priest standing in persona Christi.  Worship is for the purpose of proclaiming, once again, the work that God in Christ has already done, namely, reconciling the whole of creation to its Source and Creator.  Worship is about God, adoring God just like the Angels and Archangels apparently do without ceasing for no other reason than that is “right and a good and joyful thing” to tie our story to the divine.

The problem, however, is that current thinking about dynamic congregations has more to do with technical, mechanistic, directorial, astonishingly secular business models of ‘leadership,’ models we’ve been fed as clergy and lay leaders in mainline (old-line?) American Protestantism.  Even more astonishing is that in spite of the obvious crumbling of those cathedrals of thought — consider, for instance, the effective shuttering of The Alban Institute — they’re the very same models we keep feeding ourselves, time and time again.

We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of cultural criticism and post-modern analysis.  I read this stuff, too, and I know it has, potentially, positive gifts, but I’m afraid too many of us mainliners are better able to quote cultural trends and talk about the end of Christendom than we’re able to re-tweet the words of Jesus in the gospels.

We’ve borrowed the language of post-modernity, whose self-critical apparatus was actually supposed to lead to some series of profound change, in order to prop up our decidedly modern, self-obsessed institution.  We steer close to and then quickly run away from the fact that that death, that seed which needs to die so it can grow into something new (John 12:24), also involves us, involves The Episcopal Church, and involves getting over the fact that we may not appear or even act as competently and be as effective as this secular world needs its so-called ‘leaders’ to be.  “‘Effectiveness’ is not a Scriptural concept,” writes the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony, “and neither is it one affirmed in traditions of Christian theological reflection.  The foundational model of the Christian Church, that of Jesus and his disciples, was expressed in a radical powerlessness.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah and I should know, p.33)

At St. George’s, we’re exploring a new model of music and worship.  I’ve promised I’ll more intentionally blog about this and share, at least, my own thinking.  Just last week, I already started doing so on the Episcopal Church Foundation’s ‘Vital Practices’ series (click here).  Similar pieces will come, both on this blog and at ECF Vital Practices.

Before we begin, though, we also need to be exceedingly clear about our purpose.  Ever since I arrived in Valley Lee, now, seven summers ago, we’ve been at work on a huge goal, and we’ve been pulling this thread through every other aspect of our life together at St. George’s.  We’ve revised our By-Laws and our approach to financing and budget-making.  We’ve effectively changed how we share ministries and authority and power.  Fundamentally, the goal is to make this institution, this organization in St. Mary’s County, Maryland vastly more like an unmistakably Christ-centered organism and less like a self-obsessed consumer of people’s time and energy, much more like the early apostolic fellowship of believers, a gathering that also drove them to serve and live more boldly in the world, and less like an institution that appears to take more it gives.

We haven’t yet touched Sunday mornings.  That is where we are right now, and it’s going to require the same level of clarity, self-critical reflection, strictly theological discernment and, perhaps, sacrifice as those processes which led to the other changes in the ways we function and relate to one another.  It’s going to require us to be honest about the purpose of worship and the role of music and, above all, to be exceedingly cautious whenever we stray near the dangerous, solipsistic thinking that growth in music will bring about growth in the church for the purposes of growing the institution called ‘church’.  To be fair, these pitfalls are already there in the dominant literature’s careless assumptions, forgetting at its core that there’s sacrifice involved in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

Some weeks ago, I invited the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony to join us at our southern Maryland Episcopal clergy gathering.  The Associate Dean of Students at the Virginia Theological Seminary, Lewis-Anthony is also the author of the wonderfully challenging book, If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him (subtitle: “Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry”) and has recently published an equally excellent book, You are the Messiah and I should know (subtitle: “Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a heresy)”).  His talk that afternoon was as thorough and challenging as his corpus of work — and, yes, as witty as is his clear knack at titles.  He’s helped deepen and challenge, for me, dominant strands of thinking about music and worship and the life and work of the Christian church today.

Take our southern Maryland Clericus as an example, you see.  A group that averages fifteen or so come out once a month from September through June for lunch and prayer and conversation.  From time to time, mostly when I get around to it, our afternoon is enriched by a guest conversation partner, someone to pick our brains or stimulate our thinking or, too often, someone who’s part of the institution called The Episcopal Church / The Episcopal Diocese of Washington and who may have a great idea or who has to suffer through listening to what we think is a great idea.  Mostly, however, our purpose is fellowship because, frankly, when we do get some brilliant idea — or when someone else’s brilliant idea is imported to our lunch table — it generally goes nowhere.  People on the bishop’s staff are busy taking care of what the bishop wants taken care of and when those rectors leave that lunch table they, too, are overtaken by the matter their senior warden needs them to think about or what the altar guild chairperson is busy fussing about this week.  The Christian church has figured out a remarkable way to serve itself — dioceses serve the goal of dioceses and congregations serve their own purposes.  Even more frightening, we’ve developed a whole language of management and ‘leadership’ to justify doing what we do and why we do it.

Because it’s about us.

But it’s not, is it?  It’s not about us, nor has the purpose and mission of the Christian church ever been. If we really are Christ’s body, we’d better start acting like that self-sacrificial organism and learn, in turn, what “glory” really means.  And if our primary gathering is worship, that work which we’re now focusing on at St. George’s, we’d do well to re-discover the particular role of sacrifice in that “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”.

For my own part, I’m considering Justin Lewis-Anthony’s words of caution:

“We do not know what we are talking about when we attempt to talk about leadership.  When we do talk about leadership, we are, unknowingly, not being theological, in the sense of speaking coherently about the God who revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures, in the traditions of the Christian church, and, pre-eminently, in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.  There is a savage disconnect, between attempts to treat leadership in a pseudo-theological manner and the real nature of leadership, which should become apparent in the remainder of this book.  We are, dangerously, attempting to yoke ourselves with unbelievers.  We are pretending that heresy can be put in the service of the church.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah, p.34)

YET MORE WONDERFULLY RESTORED

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; Amen.

Collect of the Incarnation, Book of Common Prayer

……….

It’s hard to be human, very hard indeed to be a grown-up adult with responsibilities and demands and others to look after.  It’s hard and, somedays, we may look back fondly when we were small children and didn’t have to worry about a thing; our food was already provided, our decisions made in advance by elders.  But you can never really go back or, at least, you can never really unlearn what you’ve already learned, for good or bad, like it or not.  As it turns out, then, it’d be even worse if we were forced to go back, forced to become like children once again, to have others make our decisions and usurp our place as adults.

So we press on, striving to do those things which we know to be right and avoid those things which we know to be wrong.  That’s why we continue to learn how best to love God and our neighbor and our self and, in addition, not leave those things undone which need to be done.  There are a lot more gray areas of life.  That’s the case when things aren’t so crystal clear or roadmapped ahead of us.  We fail, from time to time, and we also succeed and grow.  Life is designed this way.  It’s so we might become a better, more wholesome creation.   That’s precisely why we’re in the midst of life with all of its complexity and challenge, for it yet has so much potential and joy and beauty, too.  That’s what it means to be created in God’s image, no longer a mere child but one with knowledge and potential, creativity and agency.  That’s what it means to be fully human, indeed that’s the very way in which we become like God, fully divine.

Likewise, it would be a mistake to read the scriptures that annually inaugurate Lent — the gospel stories about Jesus’ temptation — as if they had little to do with our created nature.  For when God determined to change the course of history, God immersed Godself in the fullness of our humanity, taking our createdness upon himself and dealing firsthand with temptation and desire and struggle.  God did this not to show us what we are incapable of but, rather, to prove to us who we are, being made in God’s image.  God did this not only to save us but to restore in us that created, that original blessing with which we can, and always could, use our human agency.

Salvation is much more the act of restoration than it is of pulling us out of the mire and pit of where we have sunk so low.  Salvation in a very real sense is restoring in us that original blessing, that primal gift of what it means to be human, the only way proven through the pages of scripture by which we also might become fully divine, like God.

That’s why we take on these Lenten spiritual disciplines, some of which may have to do with self-denial and penitence; some of which may also, I hope, have to do with restoration and promise, with rekindling in you what it means to be a living member of the body of God.

For this reason, I find such meaning in this poem – the origins and author of which I couldn’t find.  Do not fast, then, at the expense of feasting.  And make this season an opportunity, once again, to be restored in Christ.

Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ dwelling in them

Fast from emphasis on our differences; feast on our oneness

Fast from the darkness around us; feast on the light of Christ

Fast on thoughts of illness; feast on the healing power of God

Fast on words that pollute; feast on words that purify

Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude

Fast from withholding anger; feast on sharing our feelings

Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism

Fast from worry; feast on trust

Fast from guilt; feast on freedom

Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation

Fast from stress; feast on self-care

Fast from hostility; feast on letting go

Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness

Fast from selfishness; feast on compassion for others

Fast from discouragement; feast on seeing the good

Fast from apathy; feast on enthusiasm

Fast from suspicion; feast on seeing the good

Fast from idle gossip; feast on spreading good news

Fast from being so busy; feast on quiet silence

Fast from problems that overwhelm us; feast on prayerful trust

Fast from talking; feast on listening

Fast from trying to be in control; feast on letting go.

———-

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Valley Lee, Maryland on the first Sunday of Lent (2014); click here for the full text of the sermon.

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.