Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Reflection on Ash Wednesday

"Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

I always forget how stunning Ash Wednesday is. It is especially apparent in a place like New Orleans where Carnival and Mardi Gras highlight the polar opposites of the feast and the fast. One day, we're having a party in the parking lot and joyfully catching trinkets from garish floats, serenaded by upbeat music: high school bands, brass bands, even rock bands. The next day, we're singing ancient hymns set in a minor key, pondering sin and death, as our church is adorned in black paraments.

The most striking thing for me as a pastor on Ash Wednesday is applying ashes to my parishioners' foreheads.

As they kneel before me, I smear a mixture of burned palm leaves and olive oil in the shape of a cross, echoing the somber refrain: "Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." I am forced to repeat this curse upon young and old, rich and poor, sick and well, people of all races and classes. For this - the sobering reality of mortality and the infestation of sin - is the truly great equalizer. Death is no respecter of men, and every individual who breathes today may be dead tomorrow. I know that there is a good chance that many of the people whose healthy foreheads I sign with this cross on Ash Wednesday, I will later sign with the cross upon their ailing foreheads as they lay dying. And at their funerals, I may well make this same sign of the cross one last time upon their temporarily lifeless foreheads. On Ash Wednesday, this sad antiphon is proleptically whispered to one person after another, until all have taken their places back in the sanctuary.

Even the little ones are given this same curse and marked with the same morbid ashes. It is especially disconcerting to mark the children, even nurselings, in the same way. And as a husband and father, I must also confront the mortality of my own wife and son. There is a reason why there is a hush over the church on this first confrontational day of Lent.

Conducting the liturgy after applying the ashes is also shaking.

As I look out, I see the faces marked and the people labeled as mortal. The ashes signify that each person is under a sentence of death; each is terminally ill with sin-laden mortality. On every other day of the church year, this reality is conveniently (and perhaps mercifully) hidden. But on this day, the scales are taken from our eyes, the veil is lifted, and we see clearly the curse of sin and the crushing reality of the fall and its consequence.

At the risk of coming across as flippant, this reminds me of a science fiction movie from 1988 called They Live. The movie is campy, but the underlying story is quite a commentary on our fallen world. In a nutshell, the main character of the film (whose name "Nada" is Spanish for "nothing") discovers some sunglasses that, when looked through, reveal the world as it really is. In the story, unseen to the vast majority of people, the world is being run by hostile aliens. The people are being manipulated by them into a kind of gradual slavery through the mass media (such as TV and billboards). Having looked through the glasses and having seen reality for the first time, Nada's priorities have changed. For the rest of his life, he is at war against the forces of evil that seek to control mankind.

Looking out into the sanctuary and seeing the ashes on the foreheads of my parishioners is a little like putting on those sunglasses, seeing with the eyes what is usually only seen by faith. As Dr. Luther famously wrote, to see the world as a theologian of the cross is to see reality as it is. And on Ash Wednesday, the reality of sin and its curse and consequence of death are as stark as the black cremains of the palms used to hail Jesus on Palm Sunday, but are now used to mark as mortal those called to repentance.

And of course, this repentance and redemption from death is the reason for the season, so to speak. We do not linger morbidly on our mortality. We do not dwell upon death. For we know that death has been destroyed by His death. The deserved curse of the cross we bear was broken by His undeserved bearing of the curse upon His cross. Therefore, to us redeemed and beloved of God, death is only a temporary slumber of separation, a necessary consequence of the passing of this tired world in hopeful expectation of the creation of a new and greater world. And it is to the true treasure of this promise we cling - rather than to all the passing "treasures" of this fallen and fading world, mere trinkets eaten by rust, consumed by moths, and stolen by robbers. We come into the world with nothing, and we leave with everything - as baptized children of God and heirs of the king.

And it is this call to repentance and the promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation that we are also bidden to "Remember, O man..."


Sue said...

Thanks for talking about this from the pastor's perspective - I hadn't thought of that.

Last year, someone in my congregation decided it would be a "good idea" to use scented ashes. I don't even know where to start on how wrong that is! And in addition, it was rose, which is VERY strong, and which lit up my allergies. I could not get home fast enough to wash it off. It made me sad that this tradition was misused in this way. I told my pastor about my allergies, and this year, NO SCENT!

Somber as it is, I love attending worship on Ash Wednesday. I attended a noontime service, so wore my ashes at work later and for the rest of the day.

George said...

I had the same feeling too last night while marking the ashes on the head of a two year old. It's one thing placing the ashes on the forehead of adults, no matter what age, but a child sobers you up quickly.

Liked the They Live reference. Roddy Piper's best movie & has one of the greatest movie lines ever. :)

Father Hollywood said...

Dear George:

I take it you mean: "I'm all out of bubblegum." Classic! :-)

Past Elder said...

That's the oil -- s sign of Baptism even amid the ashes of death!

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Sue:

Scented?! Gads. As Prof. Marquart would say: "What can one say?"

Father Hollywood said...

Dear PE:

Here here!

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I used a bit of the franckinsense/myrrh oil in mixing the ashes -- but it was a very subtle sense.

George said...

Yes, the bubblegum line was the one! :)

Sue said...

A word of caution about the "subtle" scented oil - as a person with many chemical sensitivities, I can smell things that often others can't, so subtle to most can be overwhelming to me (we're talking asthma attack here). Some scents I can also taste, which is horrible.

But rose scented ashes - that was way over the top!