Sunday, February 1, 2009

Hey you, you’ve got a smudge or something on your forehead…

Every year, I look forward to this comment. It often comes from a grocery clerk, who kindly chats with me as I purchase some veggies, chickenbreasts and the occasional bag of buffalo wings. S/he looks up, sees black stuffon my noggin and might give me a napkin to wipe it off. “Oh that,” I say, “Don’t worry. It’s there on purpose. Today is Ash Wednesday, and that smudge is supposed to be a cross, reflecting God’s love and Christ’s overcoming death.” Or something like that.

Maybe this tradition is unfamiliar to you. Not every Christian grew up like me(Episcopal) in a church that celebrated Ash Wednesday. If you’ve not experienced it, let me tell you why I love this act as I do. Technically, it’s called the “Imposition of Ashes,” which refers to a pastor/priest/elder/Christian putting a mixture of ash (last year’s palms from Psalm Sunday) and olive oil (Extra Virgin) on her/his thumb, then drawing a small black cross on another’s forehead. During the act, the ‘imposer’ utters something like, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” a haunting sentence, to be sure, but no less true for being so. Christians do this on Ash Wednesday to remind ourselves of this life’s finite nature, and Christ’s ultimate victory over that finitude. It also initiates Lent, that annual adventure of reflection, discipline and repentance, which helps us prepare to celebrate Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. I love Ash Wednesday for at least two reasons, 1) that haunting sentence stirs the depths of my spirit to worship (you
know, those parts I sometimes leave at home on Sunday mornings), and 2) that question
at the grocery store is another chance for me to tell someone about Jesus.

I know that some have less buoyant memories of Ash Wednesday, evoking
experiences of past churches that felt oppressive. I wish it were otherwise, since this Christian observance, and certainly church itself, should invite us further into God’s unending love, not exclude us or make us feel ‘unworthy.’ Indeed, the ultimate meaning, for me, of Ash Wednesday and Lent is that even something so scary and unwelcome as death, even stuff as perpetual and alienating as sin cannot “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39b).” I find it refreshing, empowering in fact, to stare that deep truth in the face from time to time, or to put it differently, to remind myself how firm a foundation this God we worship truly is.
And this year, we invite you to join in.

On February 25th, from 6:15-6:45 PM in the Sanctuary, we will hold a brief Ash Wednesday service, kicking off Plymouth Creek’s 2009 encounter with Lent. This year’s Lent will have a theme, aligned with the year’s congregational theme (A Table Before Me: God’s Open-Armed Adventure), and that will be Holy Adventure. Not only will Holy Adventure add another crucial dimension to our year-long exploration, it’s also
the title of a book we will study on Wednesday evenings during Lent, Holy Adventure: 40 Days of Audacious Living (more details elsewhere in the February Creeksider). In conversation with our Worship Team, we found it good to remind the church that alongside hospitality and open-armed love, the adventure God invites us on is
holy, marked by holiness. In other words, there’s something supernatural, awe-inspiring, perfect and pure embedded in God’s Creation (another word for which, I’ve learned, is Adventure), and that holiness is something we can take part in, grow in, bear witness to. It is theologically and factually true that God’s Creation/Adventure is stunningly beautiful. And, alas, we’ve smudged that beauty in some respects, as
individuals and groups of people, sometimes unwittingly so, sometimes from dubious intent. So this Ash Wednesday, we’ll acknowledge that beautiful holiness, repent of the smears we’ve added to the mix, praise God’s faithful attempts at overcoming and seek God’s guidance for our holy role in bringing eternal love to our neighborhood, society and environment.

And we’ll remember this act is not really a new venture, it’s another stop on the Adventure we began weeks, years, perhaps decades ago. For I’ve learned that Plymouth Creek already values God’s Holiness, and knows instinctively that Christ’s Holy Table is a preparation zone for Christian mission. A forehead of ashes won’t accomplish that mission in full, but it can bear witness to the fullness of Christ’s hopes that we “may be one,” gathered together into glory with open arms from a Roman cross.

Grace and Peace,


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