“Ashes to go” is tomorrow, in which intrepid clergy and people take their little pots of dust to the streets, stationing themselves on street corners and bus stops offering a prayer and a cross. When you get down to it, whether you do it in a church or on the street corner, all of the ashes we do in church are “to go,” since it’s pretty easy to wipe them off your face as soon as you get tired of people looking at you funny. What’s more interesting to me are the ashes inside—what I think Ash Wednesday is more about.
When I was first ordained, I preached an Ash Wednesday sermon at Emmanuel in Boston with the refrain: Everything is not fine, and it’s fine. I think that “not fine” quality of human life is what I mean about the ashes inside. We may look organized and presentable on the outside, but inside we all have some pretty sorrowful moments. Our relationships with God are not only pleasant and moral add-ons to life as usual; they are the core: bone and sinew of waking up in the morning. And that is hard work.
This fall, when I was on sabbatical, I found myself searingly aware of what a mess I could be; all that dust on the inside. Without having to run a church all day and write a sermon every week what I found in my soul was not so attractive. I was writing, yes, some, and I was singing, yes, some—both the things I set out to do. But I also spent a long time wallowing in professional and maternal angst—too much work, not enough work, too much parenting, not enough parenting. Nevermind any time to crash on the couch and read dark Scandinavian novels. I love my parish and love parish ministry a lot, but wonder at the end of the day what else I should be doing. My poems are full of me trying to convince myself to rest—that I have everything I need and that I am everything I need to be—but somehow I never quite buy it. Of course, I also, now back to running a parish, I have guilt over not writing more poems.
After those encounters, particularly in thinking about my role in the church and the church in the world, I find myself needing Ash Wednesday in a different way—kind of more of an evangelical “me and Jesus” kind of way. I need a deeper sense of my own value—because I’m not going to earn it. After last fall, I really know I can’t. My in-process chapbook of my poetry from that time is called ashes/what remains—they are the record of what was left when everything else is stripped away. My spirituality has always been very comfortable with grappling with the suffering and evil in “the world”—consumer capitalism and all the sexism, heterosexism, classism, racism, and that whole birdcage of oppression: as the baptismal covenant puts it, “the powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” I’ve spent less time in my prayer and parish work thinking about my own need. It feels much safer to focus on the world.
Ash Wednesday is about acknowledging that vulnerability; that however I end up using my gifts with writing, or preaching, or leading, at the end of the day God loves me the same and I am in just as much need of love and forgiveness. I’m made of dust; holy dust, loving and loved dust, but still dust. And I can’t work harder to become more loved. So what does this have to do with bringing ashes to the train station? Part of it is what I was writing about when I was thinking through my huge tattoo—that scary as it feels to be so public, there is nothing to lose and we have to be brave. Loving God and loving our neighbors come down as pretty much the same thing, and offering our love of God to our neighbors is just what we’re called to do.
Plus—if you haven’t noticed? People aren’t exactly in a hurry for the opinion and approval of the church. The esteem of big institutions and fancy and articulate clergy saying important things while people listen with rapt attention is not the reality of the world—and how freeing that is. I love this arcane ritual of ashes, dust, and vulnerability—so why not offer it up? My desire to invite others into it doesn’t mean that I harbor any resentment to those for whom it’s not meaningful. If you believe, as Mary Daly pointed out in the 70’s, Christianity is just a necrophiliac religion based on worshipping a dead patriarch, I’m okay with that. I will be happy to sit down and have coffee with you and talk about how patriarchal so much of it still can be.
Otherwise, this is what stresses me out about it:
I will seem like a crazy fundamentalist
But I’m not.
I will seem like I’m judging people
But I’m not.
I will seem like I’m pushing my religion on other people
By practicing it where it can be seen? Really?
It will be awkward. I will have to talk to people I don’t know
No argument there.
It will seem like we’re offering “cheap grace”—spirituality without an invitation to deeper transformation.
Honestly? That’s better than no grace.
Legitimately (I think), I worry most about the theology being misunderstood—we don’t put ashes on our faces because we hate ourselves, or because we think that Jesus is dismissing us as inadequate nothings. When we do this in church, it’s in the context of confession, forgiveness, and repentance; hopefully the mini-ritual of ashes on the sidewalk will lend itself to people pursuing deeper reflection. Ashes are about recognizing that we are made of earth—metaphorically as well as literally if you think about where the stuff of the stuff we’re made of comes from. I love Ash Wednesday because it reminds me of my connection as a creature to the creator, a Creator who always, always wants to return to relationship no matter how idiotically I’ve screwed up. (Since it’s not technically Lent yet, I can say this):