Wednesday, February 18, 2015

We All Fall Down - Ash 2015

True story: I woke up this morning singing "ashes ashes, we all fall down."

I know it's a song about the plague, but it still fits pretty well. If we pause to remember, we have to acknowledge that we are ashes and we all fall under the power of death.

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A clergy friend on Facebook pondered today why, of all days in the church year, so many unchurched people want to receive ashes. Why not some more joyous day? Why turn to the church at the start of a penitent season? What does this say about people's expectations and image of the church? 

I'm sure I can't know all the possible reasons. One thing I've observed is that we, as a species, like rituals and I know people who make up their own rituals. That there are people gravitate towards the imposition of ashes is curious. Of all the established rituals of established religion, it's one that emphasizes our mortality, reminds us we will die. It's a powerful ritual, yes, but it's not what one might call "positive" in our culture of positive thinking.

It's also not a sacrament of the church, so perhaps being powerful without the weight of "salvation" talk, some people find it a safe place to experience solemn ritual.

I honestly don't know. But apparently it's common enough to make a clergy person ponder the phenomenon.

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Today, on my lunch hour, I took the MetroRail down to a grocery store for some lunch. There were a significant number of people with black crosses on their forehead. On the train, I observed, more than heard, a conversation between a blond twenty-something young woman and a Hispanic man of similar age. He had a cross on his forehead. I saw her lean in to him and point to his forehead. He seemed both surprised and a little embarrassed. I could tell his response was "It's Ash Wednesday." I could see her lips form the question, "What's that?" I wish I could have heard his response. It was short and it seemed to satisfy her and she settled back into her seat. 

It struck me how secular some parts of our society are now, how Ash Wednesday has to be explained to an adult. I don't have any real judgment about it, but it's a reminder that for some unchurched, all our rituals are foreign. We can't assume that people know something and just choose to ignore it. Some people really don't know. 

It also struck me that there was a priest or pastor somewhere along the rail line who had a really thick thumb. I saw some mighty bodacious ash crosses, all clearly the work of one thumb.  

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I didn't grow up with this ritual. We observed Ash Wednesday, but we didn't impose ashes. In my small town, predominantly German Texas  environment, that was something the Catholics did. No Lutheran would have thought to go about with ashes on their forehead, much less any Methodists or Baptists or Presbyterians (the other main denominations in town, all dwarfed by the Lutherans). I was an adult before I experienced this ritual. I guess it was in the 1980s when Lutherans started giving in to this piece of liturgical adiaphora. Seems strange, now, that we ever observed Ash Wednesday without it. (In my home town, there were no Episcopalians---something else I didn't experience until I was an adult---so there really weren't any other Christians to receive ashes besides the Catholics.) 

By the time I was in seminary, in the early 1990s, it had become a practice in many Lutheran churches. As a seminarian, I recall helping on Ash Wednesday with the ritual. It was all fine and not terribly profound until I had to mark an infant's forehead and tell her she was dust. I think that was the first time I felt the power of the ritual. 

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What is the power of the ritual? It's a little bit like a dance. If it could be expressed simply with words, we would write an essay. Instead, we have this ritual/dance. There are words, yes, but there is also something deeply nonverbal about it. It's physical, it's dirty, it's threatening, it's humbling, it's a very low common denominator. 

You're going to die. You're going to die. You're going to die. You, too. Me, too. 

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Is there some implication of redemption in it? "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Ashes placed on our moist, blood-filled forehead, marking us with the form of a torturous method of execution, claiming that death device as some kind of identifier . . . It's not coming to me. It's not in the text or even really in the action. Maybe it's all the baggage around it, all the history and theology and larger ritual around it that we somehow find it meaningful and, ultimately, redemptive.

The more I type tonight, the more questions I have.

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We're going to die and it's somehow going to be okay. We're going to die and somehow God is in it. We're going to die and we forget this often enough that it's good to have a ritual to remind us, if only once a year, that it's our reality, and it's somehow okay and full of God. 

Maybe that's some small part of the nonverbal content of this ritual. 

I don't know. I'm grateful for the ritual. That is all.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

NES: Ineffinitions

In the world of theater lighting, there is the phenomenon known as "spill." When hanging or focusing lights, the technicians (or techies as they're more familiarly known) work to have the light defining space on stage. The most recognizable example, I suppose, would be the spotlight, and the round pool of light it creates.

It's not uncommon to hear in the theater, in the course of setting the lights, someone say something like, "We have some spill on the edge of the playing area, downstage right." What they mean is that there is light falling where they don't want it to go. It's often faint, diffuse light, bu nonetheless not the effect desired. The techies will employ one instrument or another to get a sharper edge to the light.

(That I am using this analogy has some irony, as I just barely passed my lighting course in college, 30 years ago. I hope that what I've written above is clear enough to the non-theater person and doesn't embarrass myself too badly in front of my techie friends.)

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Theologians are a little bit the lighting designers of the religious world.

This thought came to me as I was reading  The Holy Spirit by Alasdair I.C. Heron. In this book Heron surveys the many ways the Holy Spirit has been portrayed or defined, both in scripture and in the history and doctrines of the church.

Associated with creation, ecstatic praise, prophetic utterances, conversion, and healing---among other things---the Holy Spirit has a history of not being up to any one thing. As the church wrestled with the Trinitarian language we used---particularly in the baptismal formula of "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"---questions arose. Wrangling with how Jesus was the "Son of God" was difficult enough, given our roots in Hebrew religion, but the Holy Spirit, with vague references in Hebrew scripture (usually just "Spirit of God," very seldom "Holy Spirit") seemed simultaneously like a given and an afterthought. We've always thought of God as Spirit, what's to discuss? But, ugh, we've made a deal about the Son being fully human and fully divine. Shouldn't we also say something about this Holy Spirit thing? How do we speak of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but only define two of them? And so the wrangling and wrestling continued.

A skilled lighting designer can help a team of theater artists direct our eyes to what they want us to see on stage, but it's slippery business. Particles and/or waves don't care much about our defined playing area.

However I go about talking about the Holy Spirit, there's going to be "spill" beyond what I say here. The word "ineffable" comes to mind, quickly followed by the old joke, "don't eff with the Ineffable." The joke seems like good advice, but still here I am.

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I've struggled with this first entry into the Not Exactly Systematic series. I've a notebook with no less than half a dozen false starts and her I have this, still mostly an introduction. 

So I'll close out with a little more introductory verbage. I want to be plain about my biases in my focus going forward, also about my reasons for starting this series with the Holy Spirit, rather than more traditionally with the Father. 

Bias---I believe there is Good News in the Christian faith. I believe the Gospel has the power to transform and enliven our existence. In reading Heron's book, I was struck by the absence of Gospel language. It wasn't absent, but it was not the focus---it was mostly spill. If a theology of the Holy Spirit---pneumatology for us theology geeks---is to have meaning for me, it is in proclamation of Good News. So my attempts in writing about the Holy Spirit will be looking there. Spill will undoubtedly occur. 

Reasons---As I began thinking about this project of writing about the Trinity (or in a broad way, the Creed), it occurred to me that the Holy Spirit is really the "person" that we experience most often or most directly if we experience something at all of God. God the Father is often painted as distant, needing intermediaries (like the Son or Spirit) for us to approach and experience God as Father. Jesus is the Incarnation of God, and we talk of him as being the person of the Trinity that comes near to us (Immanuel) in that this is God experiencing our pains and joys, sufferings and delights. Still, despite knowing an awful lot of Christians, I don't know anyone, personally, who has met the resurrected Christ in the same way that Thomas did, touching the wounds on the Body. I realized that anything I would call an encounter with Jesus was the work of the Holy Spirit revealing it as such. 

So: Good News focus, beginning with the Holy Spirit as the "Person" we're most like to meet first. 

Hopefully, next time, I'll move on beyond introductory material. 

[Moreso than usual, I welcome comments on the NES series. Questions and reactions will help me focus and shape future installments. Thank you for engaging.]