Ash Wednesday 2015

I love the way the liturgy functions…

As many readers know, I’ve got two books in the pipeline right now, one on early medieval monastic Gospel interpretation at the final page proof stage, the other on the spirituality of the prayer book in the editing stage. Both of them deal with the liturgy and how it works; I was reminded of elements from both today.

One of the strengths of the interlocking liturgical cycles is the opportunity for “pregnant juxtaposition.” That is, through the regular operation of liturgical mechanics, items and elements are put into relationship with one another. The ones praying have an opportunity to see connenctions between them and, in this process of discovery, to gain new insights into the character of the faith and the identity of the Triune Deity behind it all.

The regular monthly psalm cycle gave us Pss 90, 91, and 92 this morning. As I mentioned in my previous post, Ps 90 is and will continue to be a focal point for my reflections on intentionality and simplification this Lent; its appearance this morning was completely seredipitous. Likewise, Ps 91 is deeply connected with Lent for me. In the medieval cycle, the Minor Propers for Lent I were taken from Ps 91 given its appearance in the Gospel appointed for that feast, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus being tempted by Satan. Medieval monastic interpreters—Aelfric among them—argued that Satan was misinterpreting the psalm in applying it to Jesus. Rather, it applies to those of us struggling towards righteousness. God will allow us to be tempted and tried, but also lends us protection and strength throughout the process. Lines from this psalm will recur throughout the monastic Office for the entirety of Lent, reminding those paticipating in the liturgical cycles of God’s faithfulness in trial and testing.

To close out, I’ll leave with a section I just finished up in the prayer book spirituality manuscript with regard to Ash Wednesday and its liturgy:

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The season of Lent engages the affection of penitence. During Lent we consider ourselves from two vantage points. The first concerns the human tendency to sin—individually and corporately. Sin is a reality of human existence. The other unavoidable reality of human existence providing the second vantage point is death. Lent opens with Ash Wednesday’s stark acknowledgement of the reality of death. Lent isn’t about being morbid, or punitive, or tearing ourselves down, or whipping ourselves into a lather of self-condemnation. It is, rather, about that word I’ve used twice now: reality. It’s about taking honest stock of who and what we are in the face of eternity and in the face of God. We are limited; we are fallible. In a short life of uncertainty we make choices that lead us deeper into separation and chaos—cutting ourselves off from those who love us and whom we would love. Lent is a deliberate exercise in owning up.

The Ash Wednesday liturgy has four particular components that serve to focus our attentions at the start of the season. The first is the exhortation to a holy Lent. It sets forth briefly the idea of Lent, noting its dual role as a season for baptismal preparation and also a season for corporate repentance. After the history lesson, it points us to the particular disciplines of the season and identifies elements of a holy Lent: “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP, p. 265). Thus, we confront the reality of our inner lives, we do those things that help us love God and neighbor, and re-center ourselves on the vision that God has for the world and our place within it.[i]

The second component of the Ash Wednesday service that focuses us is the imposition of the ashes themselves. This is a liturgical moment of great power—and should be allowed to speak for itself without piling up a bunch of words around it. Some of my most poignant and important memories of Lent are memories from this point in this service. I remember my first Ash Wednesday as a parent when I carried my infant daughter to the rail and saw the priest put the ashes on her forehead. The contrast, the paradox, between her youth and the mark of mortality affected me deeply. Some may think this inappropriate—but I recall how many churchyards through which I have wandered, looking at gravestones, and seeing markers for children (and often their mothers) younger than her. The reality of mortality offends our sensibilities—but to deny plays into our fantasies.

Alternatively, I remember one year when I assisted in the chancel, imposing ashes. As I moved around the rail, I found myself at three figures—in the center was an elder of the congregation, his eyes closed, face to the sky, arms outstretched, gripping the hands of his wife on one side, his best friend on the other. For the previous nine months I had been visiting him weekly as he wrestled with an aggressive cancer that had turned terminal. We all knew this Ash Wednesday would be his last. For him, this moment was a solemn embrace of sister Death within the company of the church, the whole Body of Christ gathered around him.

Here, though, lies one of the brutal truths of Ash Wednesday: he was not closer to death than anyone else in the room. All of us are but a breath, a heartbeat, a moment away from death. The difference between him and us was his awareness of his situation. He knew and chose to face the truth of his mortality, a truth about which most of us would prefer to remain blissfully unaware.

From this point in the service we move to the third component, Psalm 51, the greatest of the penitential psalms. In these words, we are given the example of what full disclosure before God looks like. The psalmist is under no illusions about his interior state; there is an honesty here that we may find uncomfortable, but which speaks directly to the presence, reality, and power of sin in our lives. To my mind, the prayer book gives us this psalm at the beginning of the season. We receive it as a model of penitent prayer. We may not feel every bit of what the psalmist says, but it gives us direction and guidance for our own deep self-examination to which we are called. And, as we pray it and gaze within ourselves, we may indeed find ourselves drawing closer to his perspective than we might have first thought!

The fourth component is the Litany of Penitence which also spurs us to self-reflection. Its beginning mirrors Jesus’ Summary of the Law that classically began Anglican Eucharists and that still heads up the Penitential Order that is especially appropriate in this season (the Rite I version is p. 319; Rite II, p. 351). Jesus encapsulates God’s Law in Mark’s gospel in this way:

Jesus said, ‘The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ Mark 12-19-31 (BCP, p. 351).

By putting this section of Scripture at the beginning of our Eucharists, the architects of the early prayer books were giving this passage a special place in our understanding of what God requires of us and what righteousness looks like: loving God, loving neighbor. This is us as God wants us to be.

The Litany of Penitence starts out with a frank acknowledgement of us as we are in clear and deliberate contrast:

We have not loved you[, God,] with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.

Have mercy on us Lord (BCP, p. 267).

A lot of us are uncomfortable talking about sin, sometimes due to coming from traditions that seem to over-emphasize it, but here the prayer book is laying out clearly its definition of sin. Sin is the failure to love. Where we have failed to love—in thought, word, and deed—we have departed from God’s intention for us and for his whole creation. The rest of the litany goes on to identify and help us recognize concrete ways that we have done this. Having set out the main thesis up front, we are offered further examples of failures to love in which we may find ourselves. Again, the purpose here is not self-flagellation, but honesty about who and what we are. The litany confronts us with the reality that we fail to be the people God created us to be and gently recalls us to that high vocation, reminding us of that second call of the Baptismal Covenant: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” (BCP, p. 304).

In these ways, Ash Wednesday sets the proper tone for the rest of the season. It’s not a period of punishment, but a sober, honest opportunity to look at ourselves as we are: frail, fallible, and mortal. We need God’s grace. We need God’s love. And we need to live that grace and love for the rest of the world to see. Lent is our time to look into ourselves, our communities and to pray for the strength, the courage and the assistance to live our Baptism like we mean it. In a work such as this, I would certainly be remiss if I did not offer the reminder that Lent is a perfect time to recommit ourselves to the regular practices of the faith—including the praying of the Office and attendance at Eucharist. These are not great ascetic works—they’re actually fairly easy—but are more useful in the long run than attempts at greater feats of penitence. As we move more towards the habitual recollection of God, we are also recollecting ourselves—who we are in the face of the God who created us and loves us (no matter what!).

[i] You may wonder where “love of neighbor” shows up in this list: it’s tucked into the call to “prayer, fasting, and self-denial” (BCP, p. 265). Fasting is not just about going without for as some sort of holy diet. The intention is that you reduce the amount of food that you eat so that these resources can be given to those who do not have it; we abstain from food so that we can take the food or money we would have spent of food and offer it to charity. Furthermore, in the time that we save from not eating, we engage in prayer for ourselves and for the world, loving our neighbors in the passive act of intercession as well as in the active act of giving alms.

3 Replies to “Ash Wednesday 2015”

  1. I remember my first Ash Wednesday, I was 21. The words, repeated again and again, “Remember, O Man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return” burned into my psyche, and it was, paradoxically, good news. That was 1976, and having just passed my 60th birthday, seeing my father struggle with being 91, it is still good news. There is a majesty to being mortal, and knowing it.

  2. I am curious about the history of the days of fasting or abstinence found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and how these days were observed. Were these fasts and abstinence observed like the modern Roman Catholic interpretations of fasting (one meal and two snacks ‘collations’) and abstinence (no meat or broth from a warm blooded animal) or were these fasts more like the Black Fast of the middle ages (no meat, dairy, after dark one meal…). Additionally were there any distinctions about the severity of a fast (Good Friday vs a Friday throughout the year)?

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