Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Day Without Beauty. . .

Someone passed on the words of one Lutheran Pastor explaining why he does NOT do ashes (Thanks, Pastor Cwirla for that 2007 sermon).  It is not that I mind much when a Pastor decides for good reason why not to exercise a "may" rubric.  It just gets to me when people who just plain don't like something look for a reason to stick it to you.  That was the case here.  The person does not "like" ashes (who does, if you are paying attention) and so they were looking for support to say why we should not have them.  Of course the point is that even if we do offer them, no one compels anyone to come forward and receive them.  In this way, the rubric is still "may" even when ashes are, indeed, offered.

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.


Anonymous said...

While I do offer the ashes on ash Wednesday, I do think it is necessary to point out one problem with your argumentation

"It can be misunderstood (if that were a serious reason, we would not have baptism or the Lord's Supper)."

Baptism and the Lord's Supper or not only symbols and, therefore, whether they may or may not be understood is irrelevant to whether we practice them.

The ashes are purely symbol and, therefore, the meaning is the ONLY reason we apply them. If, therefore, the meaning is likely to be misunderstood, that is a legitimate reason to forgo the ashes.

The difference is that if the meaning of the sacraments is likely to be understood, we must correct the understanding. If the meaning of a symbol is likely to be understood it is a perfectly legitimate solution to simply forgo the symbol.

Mixing symbol and sacrament on common grounds in order to make a point is generally a very dangerous direction in which to head.

Unknown said...


A couple of reactions:

1) First a minor correction to your Latin: it is Simul justus et peccator not simil.

2) Symbolism is not that bad of a thing. WE have to remember that even as fallen creatures, our language and ability to use language fell. We are told in Corinthians that the "grunts of Angels" would be understandable had it not been for the fall. So, because of that corruption, symbolism is often the only way we have to connect with the divine reality. If you read Augustine's De Magistro (on the teacher), he says that words are often signs which in turn lead to other signs which eventually all lead back to God. Call it a linguistic theology, if you will. Symbols can be misinterpreted yes, but that does not mean the symbols themselves are bad.

3) You say you don't want people to think the Ash Wednesday service as beautiful because that would be to regard sin and death as beautiful. Beauty can occur and does occur even in the dark. Doesn't the Ash Wednesday service also proclaim the triumph of Christ over sin, death and the devil as well as His gifts to us to do the same? If not, shouldn't it? Whatever happened to the Lutheran Law-Gospel approach? The Divine Liturgy, no matter for what day, feast, commemoration also remembers Christ's death and Resurrection. You have both together and that is a beautiful thing. Plus, isn't there room for beauty even in recognizing one's sin?

My wife, several years ago, was in a horrible car accident. Her face was cut up, nose broken, bruises everywhere, several broken bones and yet she was still beautiful despite the outside appearance and despite how negatively and down trodden she spoke. Beauty exists in the dark. We just have to cut through the darkness to see it or even want to see it.

4) Also, responding to the first comment, if people misunderstand the symbols which may lead to error, is that not a reason, if not THE reason for good catechsis. I find the Lutheran aversion to symbols for fear that those could be misunderstood, is a knee-jerk reaction that has lead to some very negative developments particularly in the LCMS over the past 50 years. The liturgy has too many symbols therefore it can be abused so we should do without it. The sacraments have too many symbols so we should only offer the Eucharist maybe once a month, if that, to prevent people from misunderstanding. One of the problems with these reactions to peoples' poor understanding is that you have abandoned the church's tradition of good order. The Lutheran forebears knew that symbols could be abused but that did not mean they called for all of their removal and disuse. Another problem is that you let the laity determine doctrine and praxis. The care of that was left to the Church and her bishops and presbyters. Yes, even they can go wrong, but so can the laity. Lutherans have just made new referees. Meet the new boss...same as the old boss.

I also think that the aversion to symbols is easier for many Lutheran pastors who feel that the task of instructing people correctly in the praxis and history of the church is simply too much for them to do. Also, they don't want to be accused of being Romish. All in all, it's really a sad commentary.--Chris

Rev. Kevin Jennings said...

I need the ashes, too, Pastor Peters. The ashes are a dirty reminder that my sinfulness is not some aggregate total of wrongs done and rights ignored. Rather, the ashes are a reminder of the condition of my sinfulness, the corruption of my flesh so deeply ingrained that, left to myself, I know nothing but sin.