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.

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