Thursday, February 21, 2013
A Day Without Beauty. . .
I know the excuses. It was not the earliest liturgical rubric (so it is only a thousand years old or so, that is hardly young). It can be misunderstood (if that were a serious reason, we would not have baptism or the Lord's Supper and here the repercussions are far more serious than for mere symbols). It is often only a skin deep symbol of something that should go deeper (duh, but that is the whole problem with repentance -- it is always skin deep easy and much harder to rend our hearts and not our garments). It forgets that we are forgiven and redeemed, created clean and new in baptism (isn't that why the ashes are in the shape of a cross). But we are simul justus et peccator and for this reason alone ashes are beneficial.
The line that gets me from this defense of not using ashes was this: Symbolic gestures just won’t cut it when it comes to repentance. Symbols are whatever we say they are; they run under our control, which is the way our sinful self likes it. We have all sorts of symbolic gestures when it comes to love and marriage and we do not condemn them. We have all sorts of symbolic gestures when it comes to worship and we do not condemn them. We have all sorts of symbolic gestures when it comes to prayer and we do not condemn them. My point is that we are people of gestures -- symbolic gestures or ritual or ceremony, call it what you like. That is how we signify what is important to us -- through our symbolic gestures. These are not little nods bowing to the god of externals but the way the internal is exposed or communicated outwardly. If anything, we should be encouraging these -- especially when it comes to repentance.
It occurs to me that things can be too nice in Church. We dance around sin and skirt the reality of death so that we can talk about a loving God and a gentle Jesus. Ashes are a jarring counterpoint to the small talk of faith that too often dominates even Lutheran services and sermons. Ashes are not cute or pretty. Believe you me it is gut wrenching when, as a Pastor, you mark the head of a sleeping baby in her mother's arms or a sweet faced little toddler holding onto daddy's hand and say "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return." I can say it more easily when the face is weathered and wrinkled and we all know that death may not be too far off but it hurts to say that and mark with ashes the forehead of one whom we presume to have a whole lifetime ahead of him or her. But that is exactly the genius of Ash Wednesday's ashes. Death is no respecter of persons and has passed to all people as the fruit of sin's poisoned fruit. Death cannot be denied or postponed and sin it its cause, its viral destroyer, and its fatal illness.
I have had people say to me that the Ash Wednesday service is beautiful. I don't want it to be. There is no beauty in sin and mourning and ashes. I am NOT denying that we are forgiven, restored, and redeemed from sin and its death. My point is not that the liturgy is ugly but the theme of Ash Wednesday is not beauty but sin's wretchedness. What I am saying that on Ash Wednesday the purpose of the liturgy is not to focus primarily upon this good news but to issue the call to repentance, to lead the people into a renewed awareness of why the news is good by looking carefully at the bad news, and to confront death's mark on us. We have this treasure in earthen jars and on Ash Wednesday we admit that under the paint and decorations the jars are just that -- earthen and mortal.
So we wear black. We sing the miserere of Psalm 51. We hear the call to return to the Lord for He is gracious and merciful (but not us -- we are sinful and dead). We meet the Lord in the midst of our death -- the God who comes to us and not ever the other way around. We wear the ancient and external mark of mourning over sin, we make confession of culpability, we acknowledge that there is no health or life in us but that which Christ places in us, and we repent under the aid and prompting of the Spirit. External gestures that reflect the inward heart bowed in repentant joy (not an oxymoron, either) to the Lord who kills to make alive again.
I do not like ashes. I wear them because I need to wear them. There is nothing cute or neat or cool about them. They are as jarring as the sound of earth against a casket at the cemetery (ashes to ashes, dust to dust). But what we don't want to hear or wear is exactly what we need to. Nobody talks much about repentance anymore -- not even the fundamentalists. We have moved on to a happy faith where unpleasant subjects are off limits. So the ashes stand out even more starkly now than a half a century ago or five hundred years ago. What is needful for me to wear is also needful for the world to see on me.