Perhaps of all the services we hold over the course of a liturgical year, what we do today is the most counter-cultural. In a “look at me” society placing a premium on self-aggrandizement, the Ash Wednesday service lifts up modesty, discretion, and privacy. In a society teaching us we are perfect and anything that goes wrong in our lives is someone else’s fault, this liturgy directs us to own up to our failures, shortcomings, and misdeeds. In a society which says you can (and should) have it all, this service calls us to fasting and acts of self-giving and selflessness. In a society where people scurry to outlets and sources which defend and reinforce what you already hold to be true, this service says one aspect of a holy observance is the intentional reading of Scripture and meditating on its meaning. In a society obsessed with youth, beauty, and vitality, the Ash Wednesday liturgy speaks of mortality… remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Is it any wonder prosperity-gospel mega-churches and the power of positive thinking houses of worship and pop-culture imitating big-box churches don’t impose ashes and won’t engage their consumers in a Litany of Penitence today? They won’t call on their members to examine all the ways their faith and practice have been absorbed into the climate of our times. And they definitely won’t speak of mortality beyond if you died tonight do you know where your soul would go. Yes, what we are doing is counter-cultural.
And it is ancient. The association of ashes with penance and mortality predates Jesus and is found in the Old Testament. The Imposition of Ashes emerged in the Christian Church somewhere in the 6th Century. The practice in our country was associated mostly with Roman Catholicism until the 1970’s. Around that time, as people in other denominations began to discover the value of multi-sensory spiritual experiences, the Ash Wednesday service grew in popularity.
More recently, something called “Ashes-to-Go” has taken off. It was initiated by a Chicago-area Episcopal priest on Ash Wednesday 2010. He took ashes to a station where commuters waited for a train into the city. The idea was to provide access to the ashes to folks whose schedule might not allow them to attend a service in a church. He found people were hungry for a moment of prayer and reflection in the midst of their busy life.
He shared the story of his experience and the practice is catching on across the country. Clergy vest and stand outside coffee shops, busy civic centers, and basically anywhere you might expect a large number of people to congregation as they transition from home to work. Some worry the practice disassociates the Imposition of Ashes from the broader and deeper call to observe a Holy Lent. Still, Ashes-to-Go has enabled some folks to reconnect with their spiritual roots and in so doing has led them back into the life of a congregation.
As you know, our Lenten focus this year is on gratitude. It would seem like what we do this day is about as far removed from gratitude as possible. Focusing of personal failures and broaching the subject of death does not seem like the kind of thing to be doing if our Lenten aim is to inspire a deeper appreciation for all that is good in this life and a keener awareness of all who contribute to making the richness of our lives possible.
In the book The Gratitude Project, from which I am drawing heavily for our Lenten program, Nathan Greene writes an article about how his mother’s death at age fifty-three after a six-year battle with cancer, helped him (in time) to approach life with a deeper sense of gratitude. Watching her fight every day for another day to be with her family led him to value life even more than he had before. Years later, while working on a doctorate in childhood loss, trauma, and resilience, he came across a research article describing how a study determined our sense of gratitude actually increases when we reflect in a personal way on our experiences of loss. The authors attributed this to something called “the Scarcity Heuristic”, which holds we value things more when we know them to be rare or scarce. Greene might argue an Ash Wednesday service will make you more grateful for life because it reminds you each day is a gift, not a given.
Greene and another colleague interviewed 350 people who had lost a parent in childhood. They wanted to understand the impact of gratitude on depression, a sense of well-being, and post-trauma growth. Not surprisingly, those who rated themselves higher in gratitude also reported lower levels of depression and a greater sense of contentment and progress in life.
Robert Emmons wrote another article about how gratitude can help us through hard times. He argues it is essential to look back on painful memories in order to discern what we have learned from them and how we have grown as a result. Reflecting on where you were and how far you have come will help you to be grateful; moving you past feeling like a victim or a failure or whatever.
About a year after my marriage ended a parishioner called me in tears to tell me her husband had left her for another woman. Listening to her I knew exactly how she felt and what she was going through. I was surprised to realize I was no longer in that place. Believe me, I was not close to being healed or whole, but for the first time I recognized the process to get there was underway. More recently, I had the same experience as I listened to a colleague describe how his eighteen-year-old daughter is distancing herself from him and he fears she is on a course to cut off all contact with him. And I know all too well exactly how it feels. It is death by a thousand cuts. As I listened I realized I am no longer there. I didn’t get the outcome I hoped, but at least the cutting has stopped. I have no fresh wounds and I am able to put energy into those things which add to my life. I am grateful for this insight.
Emmons suggests we can benefit from an intentional period of looking back on unpleasant memories and asking questions like these:
· What lessons did the experience teach me?
· Can I find ways now to be thankful for the experience, even if I wasn’t thankful at the time?
· What ability did the experience draw out of me that surprised me?
· How am I now more the person I want to be because of it?
· How have my negative feelings about what happened affected my ability to grateful in the time since it occurred?
He goes on to write this: “Remember, your goal is… not to relive the experience but rather to get a new perspective on it.”
I suspect this can be a helpful way to approach Ash Wednesday. Pondering our mortality, our selfishness, and (yes) our sinfulness should not weigh us down. It should spur us onward. Our liturgy reminds us we are not helpless and hopeless because it directs us to new perspectives and practices designed to reshape us as the people God created us to be and to restore us to full fellowship with the community of the faithful. As you engage in this counter-cultural moment, may you find in it the promise of life as God intends it and the path on which to walk in order to find it.