26 Feb Why Ash Wednesday?
I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic school as a child. Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday was part of my formation as a Christ-follower. On the surface, it seems like a strange ritual for children. Going forward to a priest, receiving a smudge of ashes on the forehead, while he said, “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” The Scriptural allusion is from Genesis 3:19, the final lines of the curse spoken by God to Adam and Eve as they are expelled from the Garden. Why are children participating in a ritual which remembers our ancient curse, acknowledges our mortality, and our need for repentance?
My recollection is that I was strangely attracted to Ash Wednesday. Perhaps I felt like this observance punched a hole in the fabric of the false niceties of adult interactions with children. Children perceive much more than we suspect about the world and about adults. They sense when adults are talking down to them, or falsely. Sure, it’s hard to talk about things like death and sin to children, but it is not helpful for them when we dance around what is obvious and true. On Ash Wednesday, I think that I felt like adults were removing their masks and acknowledging by their actions, if not their words, that death and human brokenness were real. Acknowledging these realities in the context of God enabled me, as a young boy, to find a true source of courage and hope. Of course, I couldn’t verbalize this, but I think that I felt lighter, knowing that there is suffering and darkness ahead and that faith provided a way for holding this unavoidable reality. The feeling was, finally, people are admitting the truth of what, most of the time, they avoid or pretend is not there. This was real spiritual teaching, and I, as a young child, could handle it. It was the so-called adults who had difficulty with the truth.
In seminary, many years ago, someone recommended that I read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. He made a compelling case that death was for our culture the one reality which we could not discuss, much as sex was for the Victorian era. I think this is still the case. Years ago a very educated person in my congregation told me how taken aback she was at a sermon I had preached which focused on our death. I think that sin is another reality that is difficult for us to acknowledge. It seems impolite. No doubt, generations of church abuse around how sin has been used to frighten and manipulate people has contributed to a path of over-correction in which we pretend that such a thing does not exist, or if it does, it is best to leave it unspoken. A clergy friend of mine shared a story in which his five-year-old son questioned him about the church. He asked, “Daddy, what kind of people are in our church?” His dad replied, “Good people.” His son continued, “Daddy, if the people in our church are good, why is there a picture of a man hanging on a cross in the church?”
Why is the cross a central symbol of our faith? Why do we rarely talk about death and sin? Why are we so surprised when evil keeps showing up in our midst despite our best intentions? Why is evil always located somewhere outside of ourselves? If the church is to regain significance for millions of people, I believe it will because we open ourselves again to such fundamental questions. I am not looking for a return of some good old day where we had it all right, because I don’t believe that such days ever existed. What I think is needed is an opening of our hearts to the realities to which faith points, for which our usual, superficial, egoic ways of being are not sufficient. Egoic consciousness has no answer for realities such as death and sin, so it seeks to avoid thinking about them. Our souls, however, are not forever satisfied by avoidance. Our souls need truth. Our egos may not be able to handle the truth, but our souls can, and long for truth.
This is why, as a child, I longed to go to church and receive ashes. It’s why I begged my mom to take me to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It’s why I felt moved during Holy Week and Easter, and throughout the church year, as I listened to a deeper and truer story which included all aspects of life–the pleasant and the unmanageable. True courage and life are found in no other way. Pondering our mortality and our sin this Ash Wednesday and in the season of Lent are not exercises in morbidity or self-hatred. They are invitations for us to dig beneath the surface of things and to find a deeper source to help us learn how to truly live.