Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Words on Wednesday: The Light and Lightness of Ash Wednesday

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel

It's Ash Wednesday, the day on the liturgical calendar when we begin the season of Lent. Lent commemorates Jesus' 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, and on Ash Wednesday, the church encourages us to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It's a time for self-examination and repentance. Of course, we are called to do these things daily, but I think we believe that in Lent we are supposed to repent... harder. Instead, what I feel today is relief and thankfulness to be mere dust. It means that I can give up the burden of saving the world and saving me and trust that God is doing both of those things. The great thing is that the examined life can become the unburdened life, if you're healthy about it. But for some, the call to self-examination can result in self-blame and a failure to truly experience the joy of being forgiven. While I appreciate the liturgical calendar and the rhythm it can supply to worship,  I also think we need to guard against allowing the culture of an institution to suggest extra-biblical practices that seem to be more dark and heavy than light. If we're not careful, lent and Ash Wed observance can make us turn in on ourselves and try to repent harder than is necessary.

I'm protestant, but blessed to have served in a variety of denominations, including Catholic. They have a term that touches on what I'm trying to describe as over-repentance:  scrupulosity. It's a sort of religious perfectionism in which someone feels they can never stop confessing or feel able to enjoy forgiveness. It's a sort of spiritual OCD. I think that at times, I've been like this. So, this year's Ash Wednesday when I feel relieved to be dust - feels like a victory.

The pressure to participate in church programs can result in a sort of scrupulosity, too. I have in the past felt a duty to participate in as much as my time would allow. I've cut back. WAY back. Right now, I'm attending only one thing - a spiritual formation class that has been like manna from heaven. We have great discussions, and yesterday we talked about the difference between doing "great things for God" versus simply living fully into every moment being fully ourselves as God created us and sharing the gifts of the Spirit's fruits - love, joy, patience, goodness, kindness, self-control, etc. These are greater gifts than any earthly skill or talent. We talked about the ripple effect something as small as a smile can have - the ministry of welcome and love to those we encounter. We talked about Jesus' lack of an agenda or program. He had no schedule like this: 9:00 am: Woman at the well. 1:00: Take on some Pharisees. 3:00: start a ministry to the leper colony. Instead, God incarnate walked through life ready to encounter whatever came his way. I'm not knocking ministry or relief programs. They do good work. I'm just giving up the idea that I have to adopt an agenda or join a program out of duty. God will put in front of me what he wants me to do in his time. I don't have to get ahead of him.

It's easy to elevate the value of the program or the institution and fail to embrace the wildness of the Spirit. Today, I could easily allow the cultural and institutional weight of Lent to weigh me down. But, I don't feel heavy today. I feel light. I don't feel dark. I feel light. I think it's appropriate. So does this poet.

Ash Wednesday
by Louis Untermeyer



Shut out the light or let it filter through 
These frowning aisles as penitentially 
As though it walked in sackcloth. Let it be 
Laid at the feet of all that ever grew 
Twisted and false, like this rococo shrine 
Where cupids smirk from candy clouds and where 
The Lord, with polished nails and perfumed hair, 
Performs a parody of the divine. 

The candles hiss; the organ-pedals storm; 
Writhing and dark, the columns leave the earth 
To find a lonelier and darker height. 
The church grows dingy while the human swarm 
Struggles against the impenitent body’s mirth. 
Ashes to ashes. . . . Go. . . . Shut out the light. 



And so the light runs laughing from the town, 
Pulling the sun with him along the roads 
That shed their muddy rivers as he goads 
Each blade of grass the ice had flattened down. 
At every empty bush he stops to fling 
Handfuls of birds with green and yellow throats; 
While even the hens, uncertain of their notes, 
Stir rusty vowels in attempts to sing. 

He daubs the chestnut-tips with sudden reds 
And throws an olive blush on naked hills 
That hoped, somehow, to keep themselves in white. 
Who calls for sackcloth now? He leaps and spreads 
A carnival of color, gladly spills 
His blood: the resurrection—and the light.

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