Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ash Wednesday Musings

Genesis 3:18 "...For from dust you were formed, and to dust you shall return."

Isaiah 58:5-7 (The Message)"Do you think this is the kind of fast day I'm after: a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face ad parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, GOD, would like? "This is the kind of fast day I'm after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I'm interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families."

I'm from a church tradition that usually does not celebrate Ash Wednesday, or for that matter, take much notice of the Lenten Season. Until about 10 years ago, I had no idea what this day was about, even though a large part of the church world celebrates it in some way.

I have vague memories of two neighbors, coming over to play one Wednesday after school. They both had smudges on their foreheads, and when I asked about it they rolled their eyes at my Protestant ignorance and said, "It's Ash Wednesday. Don't you know?" Well, no, I didn't. And I did not know how to respond to the follow up question, "What are you giving up for Lent? I'm giving up chewing gum!" The other was giving up chocolate. They could not explain why, except to say something about doing penance. My Baptist sensibilities recoiled at the very idea...and that was the end of the conversation. I expect they thought I was some sort of Protestant pagan, and as for me, I thought they were a weird pair of Pope worshippers. Ashes on the forehead? What next?

How sad for all of us. For my two friends, that they really had no idea of what the ashes meant, and for me, that I summarily wrote off all "ritual" as useless.

I admit that in my childhood Easter Sunday, with it's joyful celebration, seemed to spring out of nowhere. We seldom even had a Good Friday service, sad to say. That changed later in my church life when we relocated to the Midwest of the USA, which is basically Lutheran/Catholic country. Almost all churches "up north" do take notice of Good Friday, at least.

A few years ago I "celebrated" my first Ash Wednesday at the church of a friend. She pastors a neighboring Presbyterian congregation, and she joined with our Methodist clergywoman friend in a service of remembering--graciously allowing whoever of us Assemblies of God folk who wished to join them. I sat in the lovely old sanctuary, so different from my own, and I absorbed the peace of organ music and candlelight and ashes and prayer. It was significant. Last year they joined us here. I joked that we may have been one of the only AG congregations in the nation to have "the imposition of ashes" happening in our church.

This year we are not having a special service, but I will not let it go by unnoticed. I read the above scriptures this morning, and I've been thinking about the beginning of Lent. Tonight we will begin our usual Bible study with some silence and prayer and we will read together about the kind of "fast" that pleases God. Wow! The Message is kind of blunt, isn't it?

A Little Poem for Ash Wednesday.

"Take up your cross and follow me,"
I hear my Shepherd softly say,
And I, the sheep, with timid eyes,
I falter, I look, I stop and stay...

Dearest Master, don't you see,
How nice it is here in the grass?
How bright the sun, how sweet the flowers,
The peaceful water gleams like glass!

I'll follow where you lead me,
You know I trust you, Lord, I do,
But don't you want to stay here with me,
And the others...can't we, too...?

Can't we stay where life is calm,
In fragrant meadows, sweet and green?
Pastures of rest and plenty beckon,
Playing and sleeping, no trouble seen.

The Shepherd looks with at me with love,
"The valley ahead is where we'll go,
In the dark of grief and sorrow,
That is the place where you will grow."

My steps are slow, my heart is sad,
I don't want to...but I'll go,
To the valley of the shadow,
To that place we all must know.

For I know that he is with me,
Holding tightly to me there,
Dust we are, to dust returning,
I will follow, all the way.

After the cross of dying...dying...
In his glory I will share.
I will look to you, my Shepherd,
I will trust you, come what may.

If no grief there is no joy,
If no loss, no victory won.
After dying comes the living,
After darkness comes the dawn.

"For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."
Saint Paul

I can't stop humming the hymn, "Savior, like a shepherd lead us, much we need thy tender care..." And I know it's bad poetry, but the best I could do on a busy afternoon. ;-)

For a wonderful post on dying to self, see Hazlenut Reflcetions. Thank you Emily.


D. P. said...

Nice post! I'm glad more of us free-church types are coming around to reclaiming the Great Tradition of the church.

(PS: I'm typing this with a smudge on my forehead. I got it at my Baptist church tonight ;-)

kairosnow said...

wonderful post. very well written.

Dorcas (aka SingingOwl) said...

A Baptist in Georgia with a smudge on his forehead? Really, who would have believed??

Jules said...

I, too grew up A/G and knew almost nothing about the liturgical year. I didn't miss it then, but now that I have it, I can't imagine practicing my faith without it.

There are some Presbies who don't do ashes still. I guess it reminds me that there is a wide spectrum of experience in the church even within denominations. How wonderful for you that you have friends who will include you in the traditions.


Anonymous said...

This year we are not having a special service, but I will not let it go by unnoticed.

I loved this attitude. Not angry, or bitter, or even disappointed - just resolved to recognise this day in your own way.

bless your heart. You inspire me

Emily said...

Thank you for this post. I have enjoyed reading about so many others' experience of Ash Wednesday.