Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Imposition of Ashes -Ash Wednesday

We Are Tortured Wonders

The Church’s practice of Ash Wednesday has become a powerful metaphor for life’s transient nature. The very act of bowing one’s knee and having another human place darkened ashes upon your forehead tells a powerful story to our bodies that we are indeed going to face our end. Growing up in the holiness tradition I was fairly unfamiliar with the sacraments and rituals of the high church. Ash Wednesday and its formative power were missed on me and others like me. What was the point of wearing some kind of darkened ash on one’s forehead? In his book Tortured Wonders, Clapp reflects on an experience an Episcopal priest friend of his had during an Ash Wednesday service

As the priests were offering up prayers and the Gospel, they prepared to offer up the reminder of each and everyone’s frailty in light of the body’s fragile reality. As one of the priests administered the ashes on the foreheads, a stunningly beautiful woman dressed obviously with fashion and panache walked forward and knelt before the priest. Her reticence and awkwardness were obvious and at some point she leaned forward as if she wanted to say something to the priest. He instinctually drew closer to her whispering only to hear her say in halting speech, “Father, I am a model. I know I only have a few years, and then I will be too old for this work. My body is aging, and I can hardly admit it to myself. I do this once a year, at this service. So rub the ashes on. Rub them hard.” Page 170 Tortured Wonders

I bring up the season of Lent for it is the system of time under which we live. We all live under some construct of time and ascribe value to it. We know how we value time by observing how we manage it, how we talk about it, and how we attempt to capture more of it for our use. Time tells us when to go to work, when to rest, when to allow leisure, when to celebrate, when to mourn and on and on.

When we as Christians introduce the Church calendar as a lens through which we see and value time, it is going to form and frame our lives differently than clocks set to other standards of value. If one travels at all they begin to see that the perception of time and its presence is defined and expressed very differently from one culture to another. Any time spent in South America and it is clear that smaller increments of time do not exist. Time is measured in hours at best but mostly in days and those days are broken out into things like sunrise, the heat of a noon day son, and the cooler hours of impending nightfall. If one treks down to Columbia or Ecuador, they quickly learn that smaller configurations of time (like minutes and hours) usually are considered porous expressions of intentionality and not literal containers into which life should be lived.

Time is different for believers. The nature of this sojourn demands we regard this seemingly vaporous experience with great care and stewardship. The Church calendar is a value system created by believers that reflects this honoring. We see and value time in a distinctly Christian manner. As stewards of life and its resources, we are not ultimately going to see time as merely a container for our own personal needs and preferences. This is not to say that we do not see ourselves living inside of time as a person but that there are grander purposes into which life and truth, goodness and beauty can be expressed and time is one of those containers.

Lent is a season that takes us into a cycle of repentance and mourning. It is clear that as we approach Easter, our hearts and minds begin to see the impact of our personal sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world. So much of our suffering comes from our unwillingness to embrace our limitations and our rootedness in our own agendas for life. Thus, we need a calendar or a clock if you will to tell us to mourn this condition. We must set aside some time to remind ourselves of our own finitude, our own limitations, and our own divine confinements.

Divine confinements is a phrase that came to me as I sat in a hospital wondering why the season of illness had befallen me. Wondering is probably a softened term for in fact, I was feeling God’s hiddeness and most of my prayers were those of desperation and crying out. As we allow ourselves to fall under the power of the Church calendar we begin to see that our Savior as well entered into this time where the confinements of life and His impending death were looming large on the horizon and overwhelming to His humanness. The wounds of overwhelment and insufficiency plague us as humans. This is the space out of which we question our faith, question, God’s existence, question the very thought of a kind and gracious God.

Michael Card makes it clear in his book Sacred Sorrows, that real mourning is different than despair. Despair comes when we do not think God is hearing our cries, when we take our crying out, and like Nietzsche, scream it into the abyss of nothingness to a God that is a figment of our own imagining. It is during times of great lament that the aloofness of the mystery now moves from being merely an intellectual conundrum solved by philosophers and preachers to an emotional necessity that we settle once and for all whether God and us can handle the visceral exchange that takes place during lament.

The Imposition of Ashes (Ash Wednesday) is in many ways the Churches answer to the ultimate question which is, “why do we die and why must I know that I am going to die?” Animals of course don’t seem to have this awareness. This may be open to debate as some elephants do seem to mourn the loss of their mates and many have said that other animals do as wall. Regardless of the level of consciousness of animals, it is clear that for humans, the question of our forthcoming death is a foundational exchange that all of us have at some point or the other. Ernst Becker in his ground breaking writings talked about the power of death as a back drop for much of life’s intensities and challenges.

As Christians we do have a hope and much of the modern church tells us to focus only on the hope side. Real lament seems to me to take hope into consideration but it also allows for the soul to cry out. It allows for the soul to tell a Father that the pain is too much; the feelings of sorrow and abandonment go deeper than they ever imagined they could feel, the seeming sense of insufficiency and overwhelment stand like cold specters over our shoulder reminding us daily of our impotence.

Any cursive reading of Scripture reveals quickly that much of the Old Testament writers did not sugar coat their laments. I am fearful that our satiated sense of self sufficiency that comes through abundance, keeps us from feeling at a deep level that this life is just not enough. The perks, the positions, the joys and pleasures in the end do not keep death from our door. Thus, this is a portal through which all enter. Death is the great leveler if you will.

As we enter the season of lent we are being told by our ancient heritage that honoring the lament, repenting over our ways of engaging each other and the created realm, are ways to redeem the time. There are ways to spend our time wisely and mercifully. Any spirituality that does not allow for lament is a cheap religion. It is not what God came to earth to offer us. In Jesus we see that God cares about the suffering of His people. In fact, the rain falls on the just and the unjust implying that God’s common grace is not merely an over flow but intentional in the sense that He wants this part of His character to be preeminently available. Crying out is something He welcomes. Deep questioning and sacred sorrow are things He is familiar with as his own Son questioned the very plan of salvation on some level. “Why have you forsaken me? Why? Why?”

As we continue to explore our spiritual roots we begin to see that the prayer of abandonment is an entry point into the heart of God. To seek after God is to first of all speak into the darkness with truth. Are you there? Why are you hiding?

It is during times of darkness and its shadow that we feel the tension of this life with a vengeance. We cannot hold back the tears. We cannot explain well enough to our souls the sense of impending loss. Thus, wisely, our brothers and sisters from times past have said….come under the canopy of this clock. Come under the story of time offered to us by our Hebrew brothers and sisters and then through the atoning story of our Savior begin to see yourself and your relationships to time and space through this blessing of permission. We have a time set aside in our lives to see it as it is. We do not have to deny the seasons of the soul, the journey of the heart. Regardless of what time the clock says, what time zone we are in, what part of the world we are in, there is a moment set aside for us to face the divine confinements of this life and mourn. We can do this without shame and hiding. We can even make this time oddly enough one of beauty. Wear the ashes with humility and grace.

A Poem

The Final Boxing Up of Life’s Things

Death will peer thru the front door window
Quietly come in unannounced
Only to discover most of my projects in moderate disarray
Exposing just how unsettled I really am
But alas, the one uncovering my cluttered domicile
Will most likely miss any sense of meaning and placement
My things will dissolve into their separateness
Revealing little about the tapestry I was constructing
This unwelcomed intruder will box up my things indiscriminately
Never to reveal anything to anyone regarding
The underside of my life’s weaving mystery
Only You see the life we’ve formed

Ash Wednesday Historical Background

The imposition of ashes on the foreheads of Christians is an ancient Christian practice, going back at least to the 10th century. Biblically, ashes are a symbols of purification and penitence (see Numbers 19:9, 17; Hebrews 9:13; Jonah 3:6; Matthew 11:21, and Luke 10:13 ).

In the early church, people who had been separated from the church because of serious sins might seek to be re-admitted to the fellowship by observing a formal period of penitence during Lent. These people were generally sprinkled with ashes or given rough garments sprinkled with ashes as a sign of their sorrow for their sins.

Beginning in the tenth century, the observance of Ash Wednesday became a general rite for the church. The ashes, which were a symbol of purification in the Old Testament, remind us that we are mortal. In many churches the ashes are made by burning the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday. Ashes are placed on the forehead, usually in the sign of a cross, in a ritual known as the Imposition of Ashes. As the ashes are placed on the forehead, words such as these are spoken:

"Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return," recalling God's words to Adam in Genesis 3:19.

The ashes are prepared by burning palm leaves from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebrations and mixing them with olive oil as a fixative. In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is observed by fasting & abstinence.