Last Wednesday, I stood in front of someone with a bowl full of charred palm fronds and waited for her to smear some on my forehead.
It had been a very long day – some good, some bad. On the plus side, I’d gotten my hair cut, and my hairdresser loves to throw in a few minutes of scalp massage while she’s shampooing. (Bless you, Mayu, and everyone at Object Salon.) The minus side? She finished the wash, cut, massage, blow dry and style in forty minutes flat, and that was the only efficient part of the day. The entire day at work, everything seemed to take twice as long as it should. In addition, the haircut got sandwiched in between work and a Bible study class.
So why, you might well wonder, did I stop my busy day to put on some ashes? (And if you’ve read your Bible, you might wonder if I added the sackcloth?) I could have taken a nap for that hour and still have been to church in time for the class, if I insisted on studying on a perfectly innocent Wednesday. No one was taking attendance at the service beforehand.
Like most rituals, if you take it out of context, it sounds silly. Frankly, even in context this one sounds a little bizarre. Forty-ish days before Easter, Christian churches hold this ceremony to begin the season of Lent. (It’s actually 46 – they don’t count the Sundays, because those are “the Lord’s day.” If you believe in God, aren’t they all the Lord’s days? Makes me wonder.) The forty days are a reminder of the time when, according to Matthew 4: 1-11, Mark 1: 12-13, and Luke 4: 1-13, Jesus wandered through the desert and was tested by the devil, before beginning his ministry. The sane person could question why in the world anyone wants to concentrate on this. Jesus did the wandering, passed the test, and completed his ministry by rising from the grave. What good does it do to remember the time of preparation beforehand?
For the three of you out there who wanted to know, Ash Wednesday got its start in the fourth century. According to eHow, people wishing to be baptized just before Easter spent the previous forty days preparing their hearts, praying and meditating. (Forty is also a number used frequently in the Bible to denote a time of renewal.) Ashes are mentioned many times in the Bible as a sign of repentance. Putting them somewhere visible on your body marks you with a symbol of death, to demonstrate that you are allowing something that was a part of your life to die, because it kept you apart from God. It stood between you and who you wished to be. At some point, the rest of the congregation started to pray during these weeks too, in order to support them. Eventually, it evolved into a season of praying, repenting, and fasting. A while back in Catholic history, the fasting was literal – much like the customs in Islam for Ramadan, you didn’t eat all day until you got home in the evening. (Then, you were allowed a small meal without any animal products or liquor. This must have made for some interesting digestive events in a time when the water wasn’t always safe to drink.) At some point the church loosened the rules and said that people just had to go without meat on Fridays (a custom many Catholics still observe). Fasting is now only required for those over the age of 18 and under the age of 60, and is comprised not of the complete abstinence from food, but only by limiting the intake to one full meal for the day. (You’re allowed two snacks if you really feel you must.) The idea is to separate yourself from luxuries in order to come closer to God. (It doesn’t hurt that the practice also reminds us that having three meals a day is actually a luxury in may parts of the world.)
I’m not Catholic, but for some reason my United Methodist church decided a little fasting was good for the soul. I decided to play along, so I “fasted” through lunch, having only water and an over-priced juice that I bought at Starbucks that morning when I remembered my plans for the day. (A juice that was, by the way, delicious, but not necessarily a good way to separate myself from luxury, since all I could think about while I drank it was that at that price, I better jolly well enjoy it.)
Despite its odd characteristics, Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite ceremonies in the liturgical year. Yes, it’s low-key. That’s one of my favorite things about it. Hallmark will never take over this rite. There are Ash Wednesday greeting cards, it’s true. I looked it up. (One of them said, “Celebrate Ash Wednesday the old-fashioned way: Don’t.” It made me laugh, while simultaneously causing me to wonder why you’d spend money to send a greeting card for an extremely understated day to someone who didn’t observe it.) But I wouldn’t bet on the day ever becoming popular. There will be no parties, no gifts exchanged, no scented commemorative ashes for you to buy from a handy kiosk outside the building.
The service is held in churches around the world, with the least social pressure of any religious ceremony there is. (All the Catholic websites I visited made certain to inform me that it was not a day of obligation.) It’s held on a Wednesday night. No one gets the day off work, and I don’t think even the Girl Scouts cancel their meetings for the night. (Oh, I forgot, the Girl Scouts are a bunch of heathen. Rick Santorum tried to tell me, and I just didn’t want to hear it.) It’s hard enough to get people to church for a mid-week service when it’s for a happy occasion. Getting them to show up in order to remember someone going hungry in unpleasant climatic conditions is next to impossible. I hear it’s much more popular in Catholic churches. In my United Methodist church, however, with a few minutes’ thought, the minister could probably write up a list of the faithful few that will attend from memories of previous years and give it to you with enough advance notice to needlepoint them all their own personal seat cushions. It is not a big seller.
So, given this weak endorsement, why do I enjoy it?
When it comes to faith, I’m kind of a private person. Yes, my faith bleeds into my life, so you will hear me mention it on my website and in person. I’m good with that. Though I try not to push it on to other people, it does inform many of my choices, so it will come up when I discuss my life. But I very seldom hear God screaming at me in the street. I need quiet and space in order to center my mind on the Divine. I require periodic doses of calm communion with the Universal Spirit of Love in order help me cope with the aggravations of day-to-day life. And rising above hurts and friction, in order to return kindness for injury? The rest of the world has to go away for a little while, because I not only need grace, I need God to super-size it.
I love the noisy services, I really do. Those times when the music is playing and the sound peals with such joy that everyone in the congregation forgets their hang-ups about singing and joins in because they can’t help themselves. But I need the quiet moments, to get me through the days when all my joy seems to be stamped with an expiration date long past.
Ash Wednesday is all about the quiet. I am asked to reflect, to remember the times when I’ve been so much less than who I wanted to be. I can understand why many people don’t like it. If you stay in that place, you are but a breath away from self-loathing. Most of us reach that destination periodically without any help, and don’t want any further encouragement to return. The difference in this case involves coming out the other side.
My pastor had a fabulous image in her sermon this year. Many times, the ashes are placed on the forehead with some mumbling about “ashes to ashes.” Great. I wanted to feel like I’ve been to my own funeral. This year, however, Pastor Se Hee pointed out beforehand that rather than a symbol of earth, these ashes were a symbol of fire. (No Joan of Arc images, people. Stay with me.) When dealing with precious metals, fire burns off the impurities, leaving only the most valuable part. The ashes come after the fire. The ones placed on our forehead, she said, were a reminder that the fire had already happened in our souls. As of this moment, if we wanted, we were made new. It reminded me of Billy Crystal in City Slickers, telling his friend that his life was a “do-over.” (This is either a demonstration of pop culture made relevant, or my ability to cheapen even the most glorious of moments. Call it like you see it.) At any moment, I have the power to say that the past is past, and I will be different now. I will still have to deal with the fallout of my actions, no question. Just because I’ve changed doesn’t mean the hurt that I’ve caused others has gone away. But I can choose to be different than I was. Maybe not radically so – just a little kinder, a little more generous, a little less quick to judge than I have been in the past.
I like baby steps. They tend to be the ones that stick.
The ashes that I wore on my forehead for the rest of the day were a symbol of newness – a reminder that while I may have to deal with my mistakes, I don’t have to be chained to the behavior that created them. This year I will approach Lent not as a time of punishment and deprivation, but as a way to embrace my newness, to soak grace into all those empty spots where God has burned my impurities away.
In new wonder, I can watch the children welcome Jesus into the church on Palm Sunday with palm fronds, the leaves that the people 2,000 years ago waved at Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem. They were leaves not of peace, but of victory, to celebrate the savior they thought would take down Rome for good. Those palm fronds, representations of false expectations, will be collected after the Palm Sunday service and burned, to be stored for next Ash Wednesday.
…And thank goodness, because by that time, I will probably need that newness again.
Kimberly does not actually believe City Slickers was written by God. But she believes that God has a sense of humor, and probably enjoyed that scene of Billy Crystal being dragged around by the cow.