Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ashes, Ashes

"In Christian tradition, one of the most solemn days of the church year is Ash Wednesday, when believers enter a season of preparation for Easter by confronting their own mortality. That this season lasts forty days is no mistake. Those who follow Jesus are meant to follow him into the wilderness, where they too may be tested.

"For me, at least, the peak of the service comes when the priest invites the congregation forward to the altar rail to receive ashes on our foreheads. Those of us who have done it before know that we are being invited to our own funerals."

--Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. At noon, I'll go over to St. Philip's and get a cross of ash drawn across my forehead. Then I'm going to lunch with a friend. It's always strange to wear your faith on your skin, especially in public. Usually I forget by mid-afternoon and then am mildly shocked when I look in the mirror.

All the great religions demand the death of the self. For someone as self-centered as I am, this is nothing less than irritating. I don't want to give my self up. I think I know where I am and who I am, and even though I'm aware that I'm broken, at least I know where the broken places are. I know how to hide them with artfully knotted scarves and long sleeves worn even when it's hot outside.

To shed my skin and go into the wilderness, to go without my armor--my list of degrees and awards, books read and books published; all those things that say I am here, I am someone, I am reasonably successful and you can't take that away from me--well, that's something I avoid like the plague.

But during Lent, we're asked to hand over our armor at the door. We're asked to make ourselves vulnerable. To give up at least one of the habits that keeps us moderately numb so that even if we know where our broken places are, we don't have to feel them.

The ashes on our forehead? A public proclamation that no matter how successful we look, we're dismal, dust-bound creatures. Our salvation? A God who loves and heals us.

I'll be honest with you: I've been going through a spiritual dry spell lately. I go through them periodically, and so far I've always emerged on the other side, faith in tact, in fact usually stronger and deeper. But no matter how bone dry my faith gets (and sometimes I fear it will turn to dust), no matter how much I doubt some days that anything like God exists, I always have a tender spot for Jesus, because he was friend to the widow and the tax collector and the prostitute--to all the people who couldn't hold up their badges of success and say, "I'm okay, I'm someone important, I'm someone you must respect." He loved the people no one else loved. He healed them and forgave them.

Some days, when I can't find my armor anywhere, and I feel all my broken places and remember the words that broke me, the loss or lack of love, the broken trust, all my own terrible trespasses against others, I realize how small I am, how much I am in need of healing and forgiveness. I remember that the way of Jesus is not the way of success and respectability (as we see in the Gospels again and again), but the way of love and vulnerability.

Even when I don't believe, I still find myself believing that. And tomorrow the ashes will remind me and anyone else who cares to gaze upon my dismal, forgiven self.


Tracy said...

I love your perspective on this topic. For our women's retreat in April, we're looking at exactly this: taking off our masks and being authentically real....all the time.

Yesterday, Mr Busy's teacher mentioned something about 'Pancake Day' aka, Shrove Tuesday. I was terribly sad that I'd missed it completely. Not that we are in a church that practices lent, but because in some small way it reminds me that Easter is coming and that Jesus gave up so much so that I could have a relationship with Him. Perhaps we'll have our pancakes today and I can tell my kids about it, anyway.

Tracy said...
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Heather said...

I spent 12 years in Catholic school and the black smudges never held any meaning for me until I moved to another city and felt even more an outsider. On Ash Wednesday, a customer asked for my assistance and when I turned to her, the ashes fresh on her forehead, I instantly understood the meaning of community, continuity, and faith.

Beautiful post; you made me cry the good cry. Thanks.

Angela said...

This is such a thoughtful, honest and HELPFUL post. Thank you for what you have said.
So often we think it is all about us - but in fact it is all about His grace
May you feel the presence of Jesus with you throughout Lent.
Blessings xx

Pom Pom said...

We're so wobbly, so genuinely unable to wrap up and conclude. It's so hard for me to remember this. Surrender - I keep whispering this to myself.

debbie bailey said...

I've never seen anyone with ashes on their forehead. I think I'd be startled if I did. It's very uncomfortable to come face to face with your own sin and mortality. Not that we don't need reminding...we do. I just don't like it!

I'm becoming more interested in the liturgical calendar and wish our church participated more in it. I could do things at home, I know, but the support of the church body would be a comfort. Your post was very candid and soul-baring, and I appreciate that. I like honesty.

Gumbo Lily said...

I really liked what you said, Frances. Thank you for the reminder that I am vulnerable and weak underneath my armor.


GretchenJoanna said...

When I was in TOPS there were a couple of Catholic ladies who would come to the weight-loss group after church on Ash Wednesday with the spot of soot on their foreheads. That was the first I'd seen that practice enacted, and I always admired them.

It sounds like you are off to an appropriately sorrowful start to Lent. In the Orthodox Church we call it the "joy-creating sorrow."