Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Ashes 2014

I have a small, round metal box with a Celtic cross on its hinged lid. 
I have not opened that box in several years. The last time it was opened was on an Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. I lifted the lid of that box today and inside it I found exactly what I expected to find: ashes mixed with a bit of olive oil. Surprisingly, the consistency of the mixture remained as when I had last opened the box, placed some of the ash and olive oil mixture on my thumb, and marked the foreheads of the people in the congregation I pastored with a cross.

The ashes came from burning the palm branches the congregation had used to celebrate Palm Sunday the previous year. The olive oil came from a reservoir I used to anoint the heads of those seeking healing in one form or another.

Of course, not all of my parishioners would opt to receive the ashes on their heads. The older ones, being primarily of German ancestry and somehow carrying within their psyches memories of the Reformation and especially Thirty Years' War was fought between Protestants and Catholics in Germany between 1618 and 1648, considered going around with ashes on the foreheads “too Papist” for their militant Reformed faith.

I really blame the pastors these folks had as children for their prejudice and rejection of this ancient spiritual ceremony. I had such a pastor when I was in my late teens. Since he is still kicking around and still kicking Roman Catholics, I’ll not mention his name. However, I will tell this story:
During my freshman year in college, I visited a friend in southwest Indiana during Christmas break. On the return bus trip to Louisville, I sat near another young man and a Roman Catholic priest. The young
man had just discovered the writings of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, which in located not far from Louisville. I was drawn into their conversation and the works of Merton.

When I returned to Louisville, I asked my pastor about Merton and his books. The pastor replied that I should not read them because Merton was “a damned Catholic.” I think God that I did not listen to his prejudicial claptrap. When I returned to the University of Kentucky I checked Merton autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, out of the library and read it. Since then, I have read, and now own, every book that Merton wrote and several biographies about him.
Back to ashes. The traditional words said by the officiate when the ashes are placed on a Christian’s forehead are Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return or Turn away from your sins and believe the good news. The former reflects upon our human fragility and the temporary existence we have in the life; the latter that the season of Lent is not one of “giving up something,” but rather it is a time of reflection and change. I usually said the latter more often than the former.

In the Ash Wednesday service in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship, the imposition of ashes comes in the midst of the corporate Prayer of Confession. After all who wish to receive ashes have received them, the Prayers of Confession are concluded with the words:
PASTOR: Accomplish in us, O God, the work of your salvation,
PEOPLE: That we may show forth your glory.

PASTOR: By the cross and passion of our Savior,

PEOPLE: Bring us with all your saints to the joy of Christ’s resurrection.
The service concludes with the pastor announcing God’s grace and forgiveness, beginning with this sentence: Almighty God does not desire the death of sinners, but rather than they may turn from their wickedness and live.

For me, that’s what Lent and the ashes of Ash Wednesday are all about. The beginning of the Ash Wednesday corporate confession says it better than I can:
PASTOR: As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to struggle against everything that leads us away from the love of God and neighbor. Repentance, fasting, prayer, study, and works of love help us to return to that love. I invite you, therefore, to commit yourselves to love God and neighbor by confessing your sin and by asking God for strength to persevere in your Lenten discipline.
Today I have begun my own Lenten discipline of repentance, fasting, prayer, study, and works of love. I am giving up nothing for Lent. I am adding to my life, just as I have added the ashes to my forehead.