Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Reflections on Ash Wednesday

Reflections on Ash Wednesday
Market Square Church
Pastors Jim Brown and Kelly Wiant-Thralls

Leaving our sons at home to do their homework, my wife Kris and I had a date of sorts as we went to Ash Wednesday worship service together at our Market Square Church. I was seeking a Taize Service, and Market Square does it beautifully. Their musical group was particularly eclectic and excellent: a dulcimer, harp, piano, flute and trombone. It seemed to me, at first thought, to be a strange combination of instruments, but together they created a fabulous foundation for my prayers and the quiet chanting of the Taize music. Market Square Church, in my experience, does everything with careful planning and a precise eye for detail in their worship. This matches my personality very well, with my penchant for making lists, checking details, and worrying about plans.
What is it about Taize that is so soothing and so calm? Taize is particularly suited, in my mind, for evening worship, when a long work day is coming to an end, and a quiet tiredness fills me. Since I am not musical and do not much enjoy singing; I am usually a quiet listener to the rhythms and simple lyrics of the Taize songs. But their simplicity and the repetition are always significant and meaningful for me. In the massive space of Market Square’s sanctuary it was very easy for me to settle into myself, not affected by others around me, to be simply still in my soul.
Then a very discordant note rang in my heart. The pastors introduced and invited everyone to share in the imposition on ashes. I remembered as I sat quietly in the pew that I have never done that before. I know and I appreciate the theological symbolism of Ash Wednesday. The deep, penitential themes of Psalm 51 are important to me. But in all my years of serving as a pastor I never actually expressed the ritual of the imposition of ashes. Growing up in a Presbyterian Church, I remember that we had special Lenten services and programs every Wednesday through the season of Lent, including Ash Wednesday. But I am sure the little Presbyterian congregation where I was raised never expressed the imposition of ashes. I have in all the churches I served created and led services of worship on Ash Wednesday. Often these services were very meaningful and important to the congregation. But I structured my Ash Wednesday services as Services of Evening Prayer; returning to the many biblical texts that call us to repentance. But never have I expressed the ritual of the imposition of ashes. Sitting very quiet and still in the Market Square sanctuary I realized deep within myself that I did not want to begin. It was very important for me to worship on Ash Wednesday; the meaning and symbolism of the season of Lent is very meaningful to me; I fully understand and appreciate the symbolism of the ashes. But I did not want to share in the ritual. I sat quietly in prayer while the congregation slowly, reverently processed forward for their ashes.
I felt odd leaving the worship service that evening. I was, as far as I could tell, the only one unmarked by the ashes. Who am I to reject such a deep and meaningful ritual? I have pondered this since that evening. There are lots of different themes weaving together as I come up with an answer. Theologically, one of my responses has to do with the sacraments. I believe the sacraments are vitally important in the church, and neglected. With our reluctance to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week we neglect its importance and power in the life of the church. So on Ash Wednesday it is theologically frustrating to me that we reach for an ancient ritual of the church in the imposition of the ashes but we do not express our most powerful, common and ordinary sacrament in the Lord’s Supper. Spiritually, I know how I felt that evening sitting through that Taize worship. I was comfortable and quiet in myself, moved into a time of personal confession and prayer. I simply did not feel like getting up and walking forward for the ashes. That simple change would have spoiled my sense of prayer. And emotionally I know that the great Presbyterian response was pounding in my brain; the response that we hear over and over in our churches; the response that in any other context will annoy me. But there I was sitting quietly in Ash Wednesday worship but rejecting the imposition of the ashes because that is not the way I have always done it.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (Psalm 51: 1-6).