Harlequin in penitential pose in a shaft of sunlight

Ash Wednesday

A relative handful of folks gathered in our sanctuary this evening at 7:00 for one of the Lenten-Easter season’s “special mid-week services.”

Three of the small churches in town have collaborated on these special services for at least the past 20 years or so, and take turns hosting one of the days – Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday – each year. This year, we had Wednesday.

The choir was bigger than usual, because choir members from all three of the choirs sang together on the anthem, which we’d been practicing in special sessions for a couple of weeks.

What do we expect to happen at one of these worship services, or any worship service? Something extraordinary? Maybe. And probably everyone who has been to church enough has experienced something extraordinary, at least once or twice.

But often, as tonight, we may not notice anything out of the ordinary at all, in spite of the “special mid-week-ness” of the event.

The choir members have the usual inexplicable confusion about how to line up exactly the same way we always do to process in so that we are in the right spots in the choir loft. We sing a hymn we know; someone reads a passage of Scripture from Matthew that we have heard before and think we understand; there are words. We get ashes, and the logistics of getting out of the choir loft and around the sanctuary and back into the choir loft from the right direction and in the right order don’t leave a lot of mental space for noticing the deeper spiritual significance of the Ritual or the Ashes or the Beginning of Lent.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ,
to observe a holy Lent
by self-examination and penitence,
by prayer and fasting,
by works of love,
and by meditating on God’s word …
(Book of Common Worship, 250)

The most dramatic thing about this evening at church is the car accident in the parking lot, but thankfully, no one is hurt, although people are shaken up; people are drawn away to assess the situation and to wait for the tow truck; there is a great deal of checking with people to make sure everyone has rides home and transportation to wherever they need to be tomorrow; there are hugs and reassurances that everything will be OK …

And somehow in the midst of the ordinary human problems of singing still-unfamiliar music and dealing with the kind of crisis that could happen to anyone anywhere any time and being out of synch with our normal weekly routine, those words must have registered. Enough to surface again later, as an echo, or a reminder:

Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
(from Jan Richardson, “Blessing the Dust: A Blessing for Ash Wednesday”

Carl Spitzweg, “Ash Wednesday,” 1855

4 responses to “Ash Wednesday”

  1. We’ve come a long way on Ash Wednesday. We rarely wear crash helmets to church, and fewer of us go to church on Ash Wednesday.
    Then, “The most dramatic thing about this evening at church” happens in the parking lot and we “get it”.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It caught my attention yesterday that Andrew Cuomo still carried the ashes on his forehead, and that he chose to explain “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” and the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent. He quietly bore witness to his faith without beating anyone over the head or hiding it. Interesting. As a child in the Presbyterian Church, I swallowed the view that the display of ashes was contrary to Jesus’ instruction to go into our closets and shut the door when we prayed. Oh, what prejudice and sins we bear!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh … but I’m guessing you’d agree that “context is everything.” I agree with you about the quiet bearing witness to faith in our current cultural moment. But I can imagine, and I suspect you can as well, different cultural moments in which ashes would be ostentatious displays of piety and going into our closets, so to speak, would be the exact right thing, or would even be a mark of solidarity with people who wouldn’t dream of getting ashes in the first place. So it depends. I think maybe we can celebrate the beauty of Andrew Cuomo’s witness without, or without necessarily, condemning a different choice.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: