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.

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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.