Friday, February 24, 2012

Mercredi Des Cendres

On Wednesday, as the day waned, I found myself preparing to lead a service that I've never actually attended myself.   My home church hadn't made a habit of Ash Wednesday practice when I was a laddie. The congregation I interned in didn't do it, either, not when I was there.  

And for the last eight years, I was part of a church that was moving away from seasons of liturgical awareness.  There were no holy days, because every day was the same, and every worship the same.  By the time I left, the will of the collective had rendered even Easter almost indistinguishable from any other Sunday.

It worked for them, I suppose, and that I sometimes found the absence a bit spiritually dreary was just my own bias.   Those who observe one day as holier than another and those who say all are the same need to just be chill about it, bro, as the Apostle Paul once said.

When I started up in my current ministry, I discovered in that they hadn't observed Ash Wednesday for decades.  But...perhaps in response to my craving for a counterbalance to years of growing sameness...I found that I was sort of up for it.  As were they.

So I went about figuring out how to do it.  I favor brevity in worship, and quiet, and so I ditched the idea of an extended homily and decided simply to do a bit of semi-Socratic question-and-answer about the purpose of the event at the beginning.  The music was a pair of songs from the Taize community, simple, spare, and gentle.   The prayers were right straight out of the Book of Common Worship, gracious and solid and accessible.  The reading?  Just one, right from the lectionary.

Coming up with ashes posed something of a conundrum, as the traditional Palm fronds from the prior year were nowhere to be found.  Where to come up with ashes that bore some sacred meaning?   Just torching a few newspapers seemed too functional.   Fortunately, my recent ritual disposal of a well-loved Bible providentially supplied that need.

That day, I found a metal bowl, and mixed the bible-ash with olive oil.  With light fading, the little sanctuary was prepared.   Candles were lit.  The lights were dimmed.   It wasn't packed, not at all, but my initial assumption of only a dozen souls proved well off.   It was a healthy gathering, at least thirty strong.   It was also widely mixed, drawn from all generations, young and old, children and youth and parents and grandparents.

When it came time for the imposition of ashes, I was one of those moments.  It felt different.  Sacred.  Special.   Here I am, touching my forefinger to the forehead of all these people I've come to know.  It is an intimate action, touching another being.  We who live sealed in cars and across the mediating distance of cyberspace can forget this.

And so as they came forward singing, I began marking them, slowly, no hurry, with the sign of the mortality of our Teacher.  To each face, I spoke the same words, drawn from our ancient tradition.   "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."

But with each different face, I found that the same words rang both true and unique.  I spoke it to the soldiers, returned from serving in a war zone.  I spoke it to the widow.  I spoke it to the mother.   I spoke it into the bright eyes of the young.  I spoke it into the smiling upturned face of a child.  All different, yet all sharing that same nature and destiny.

I felt deeply aware, in that moment, of my own mortal life, shared with every pair of eyes that met my own.   I also felt, in that connectedness, the imperative of living into the grace we've been taught.  It felt, for lack of a better word, holy.

It only lasted twenty minutes, and then we all moved out into the peculiar warmth of that February night.   But if a time is set aside as sacred, duration means less than the moment of Presence.