Writing Exercise – Spend 6 Minutes Writing About Dust

In class this afternoon, the Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner invited us to spend six minutes writing about dust to see what it teaches me about Ash Wednesday.  Here’s what I came up with.

Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.  As one who suffers from seasonal allergies, I’m keenly aware of dust.  I know when it is prevalent.  I know when it is on the move.  I know when my body is responding to dust all around me.  I also know that most of what dust is comes from me and my body.  Dust is the microscope residual of skin and hair and sweat and silva.  Dust is part of who I am even as it is part of what ails me so.  Dust is a microcosm of life.  That which is a part of me is often what keeps me from fully being me.  Inordinate love of self keeps me from actually loving myself.  My desire to be considered special keeps me from actually being special.  The things that I chase after keep me from realizing the one who is chasing after me.

God created humankind out of dust.  Ad’am.  But what makes us fully alive, the people who God intended us to be, we must move beyond our dustiness and be infused with the breath of God: the Holy Spirit.  When we live into the fullness of our createdness, we live a life of the Spirit who is our advocate, who calls us back into relationship with our creator, who reminds us of the dream that God had in mind when out of love he created us.  Dust is who we are, but not fully.  Dust keeps me from being fully me.  God’s Spirit makes me fully me.


The Cultural Significance of Ash Wednesday #ashtag

I grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where the Tuesday that falls 47 days before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox is celebrated as Fasnacht Day.  I can remember school lunches featuring something akin to “fasnachts” (German donuts) that were covered in powdered sugar.  Beyond the fact that having donuts at school was a rare treat, most of us gave little thought to why this was a day to eat such things.  Certainly, none of us was aware that fasnacht is German for “fast night,” not as in a speedy night, but the night which begins our fast of Lent.

As I grew older, and began to become aware of certain traditions in life, the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake supper at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church.  The Pankeys and the Logans would take up a whole table and gorge ourselves on pancakes, sausage and apple sauce.  I looked forward to the annual feast every year, but hadn’t a clue that to be properly shriven one must confess and seek absolution for their sins.

Now that I live in Mardi Gras country, the annual celebration of the days leading up to 46 days before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox has grown to include parades, moon pies, beads, balls, and booze lasting weeks on end, and my guess is that the vast majority of Mardi Gras revelers have no idea what the Wednesday after Mardi Gras is about, other than hangover cures, of course.

If my life is any indication of broader society, it would seem that Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent have little, if any cultural impact, but there are two things that I’ve noticed this year that lead me to believe otherwise.  The first is the growing success of Ashes To Go programs sponsored by Episcopal congregations around the country.  In big cities and small towns, faithful clergy and lay leaders are helping the harried and the hurried to stop for a moment and remember that they “are dust and to dust they shall return.”  I’ve struggled with this idea of Ashes to Go for several years now, and this isn’t the place for that debate, but what I’ve come to realize is that there is a hungry world out there, filled with people who are starved of the message of God’s love for them.  The picture of a long line waiting for ashes on 43rd St. in NYC is a reminder to me that the Gospel is never insignificant.

Perhaps more telling of the ongoing cultural significance of Ash Wednesday comes from our locally owned and operated radio station, 92ZEW.  92ZEW is based in Mobile, Alabama, a decidedly Roman Catholic city, and 92ZEW loves them some Mardi Gras.  As I listened to part of a live broadcast from The Garage, I heard the typical sounds of the season: loud music, shouts for shots, and people celebrating.  What I didn’t expect to hear came in the midst of a conversation about how cold it was yesterday when one of the radio personalities said, “Can we petition the Church Fathers to permanently move Easter to June?”  I actually found myself excited to hear, on the air, that in the midst of all the excess of Fat Tuesday, somebody knew that it was tied to Easter Day, which is a moveable feast celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.  I was even more surprised this morning as I drove to Saint Paul’s for our 7am Liturgy for Ash Wednesday to hear Tim Camp of the TLC Morning Show dropping knowledge on the 40 days of Lent and how the six Sundays don’t count as days of fasting because Sunday is a day of resurrection.  It was probably the best Ash Wednesday moment I’ve ever had, as I came to realize that in a world that is hell bent on turning every holiday into an excuse to get trashed and make poor decisions, maybe there is still a thirst for the living water that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

Lent is upon us, dear friends, and as I will do three times standing before a congregation of the faithful today, “I invite you, in the name of Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  And I pray, for you dear reader just as I do for my parish family, that God might “grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that hose things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

I might like Lent this year

Over the past few years, I’ve grown increasingly annoyed with the penitential seasons of the Church.  I just don’t get Advent and last year, I gave up Lent for Lent.  With Ash Wednesday just around the corner, I’ve spent some time over the past week or so thinking about Lent this year.  Ever since The 7 Experiment’s week of fasting from media, I’ve found myself, more often than not, riding in the car without the radio on.  Naturally, then I’ve been thinking about the season in which traditionally, we give things up that take our attention away from God’s saving work in our lives.  As I drove to a VTS alumni lunch over in Pensacola last Thursday, I gave the first real thought on my Lent 1 sermon this year, and these words came to mind, “I love Lent.”

I love Lent!?!

This can’t be true.  My subconscious mind is playing tricks on me in the silence of a hour long car ride.  The more I pressed myself, however, the more I realized that I might, in fact, like Lent this year.  Maybe it is because by the time Lent rolls around, the hardest parts of The 7 Experiment will be over.  Maybe I won’t feel guilty about not giving anything up this year because my life has already been dramatically rearranged by this crazy book.  Maybe I’m already more in tune with God’s calling me toward Kingdom living than I have been in years past.  Or Maybe Lent is starting late enough and coupled with Daylight Savings Time, so the season of penitence won’t be couple with miserable weather and 6pm darkness.  Whatever it is, I find myself with the strange feeling of looking forward to Lent this year.

Maybe you are too.  Or perhaps you haven’t given it any thought yet.  With parades running almost non-stop today and tomorrow, I can understand that, but by the time you’ve gobbled down your pancakes and buried your alleluias tomorrow night, I hope you will have taken a minute to think about what Lent will be for you this year.

The Time Factor – Ash Wednesday

Several weeks ago, TKT asked my opinion regarding the celebration of the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday.  Our corporate memory is so short, that few people probably realize that The Episcopal Church and her mother, The Church of England, have had a long-standing, tenuous relationship with Ash Wednesday from the very beginning.  Eucharistic Propers exist for Ash Wednesday even as far back as 1549, the service for Ash Wednesday is something of a moving target.


In 1549, the office is entitled
commonly called

And it carries within the opening paragraph a nod to the ideal celebration of public penetence, with the realization that for several centuries the practice had been so polluted that time was needed to heal old wounds:

Brethren, in the prymitiue churche there was a godlye disciplyne, that at the begynnyng of lente suche persones as were notorious synners, were put to open penaunce, and punished in this worlde, that theyr soules myght bee saued in the day of the lord. And that other admonished by theyr example, might be more afrayed to offende. In the steede whereof until the saide disciplyne maye bee restored agayne ; (whiche thynge is mufche to bee wyshed,) -it is thoughte good, that at thys tyme (in your presence) shoulde bee read the general sentences of goddes cursyng agaynste impenitente sinners, gathered out of the xxvii Chapter of Deuteronomie, and other places of  scripture. And that ye shoulde aunswere to euery sentence. Amen : To. thentente that you beeyng admonished of the greate indignacion of God agaynste sinners : may the rather be called to earneste and true repentaunce, and maye walke more Warely in these daungerous dayes, fleyng from suche. vices, for the whiche ye affirme with your owne moiithes : the curse of god to be due.

For those of you who can’t read Old English, that reads:

Brethren, in the primitive church there was a godly discipline, that at the beginning of lent such persons as were notorious sinners, were put to open penitence, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the lord.  And that other admonished by their example, might be more afraid to offend.  In the stead whereof until the said discipline may be restored again; (which thing is much to be wished) – it is thought good, that at this time (in your presence) should be read the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners, gather out of the xxvii chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of scripture.  And that ye should answer to every sentence Amen: To the end that you being admonished of the great indignation of God against sinners: may the rather be called to earnest and true repentance, and may walk more warily in these dangerous day, fleeing from such vices, for which ye affirm with your own mouths: the curse of God to be due.

That portion is bold is the money line: until Ash Wednesday can be redeemed from the clutches of Rome, we will say the words of Scripture and ignore the rituals of the Church.  As time went by, it became clear that it would take quite a while before there was enough water under the bridge to restore to its fullness the liturgy of Ash Wednesday.  So, where it existed as a separate office (In 1552 and 1662 the name was changed to imply a wider usage than just on the first day of Lent.  The first American Prayer Book of 1789 omitted the service entirely, holding onto the prayers as a part of the Great Litany (Hatchett, 220)), the Office for the First Day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday, had neither a place for the Eucharist, nor the Imposition of Ashes.  Until, that is, 1979, when, in a nod to the growing tendency to celebrate the Eucharist every time two or three were gathered, the Office and the Propers for the Day were combined to form the Ash Wednesday liturgy we find on page 264 of the Book of Common Prayer.  I’ll let the great Marion Hatchett explain the reasoning.

“The Penitential Office had fallen out of use because it seemed redundant prior to the Eucharist in which substantial penitential material of similar general nature was invariably required; yet many felt the need of a special service for Ash Wednesday.  Unauthorized forms, which frequently included the use of ashes, had come into use and seemed to meet a real pastoral need.  In the present revision [1979], therefore, a special liturgy of the word is provided for Ash Wednesday, including the option of the imposition of ashes as a sign of mortality and penitence.” (Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, pg. 220)

*** Which brings me, finally, back to my point.  The rubrics in the 1979 service allow for the Ash Wednesday liturgy to stand on its own, “When Communion follows, the service continues with the Offertory,” and hence TKT’s question.  I put the question out of Twitter and had various responses.  One in particular made me ponder, and it came from my friend Evan, who tweeted, “I’ve always wondered why it’s a fast day yet we feast on Jesus. But I think the collect for AW implies yes to HE.”  He went on to say, “it’s a collect of repentance and redemption. Need both. Only GoodFri tells 1/2 of story. AW is still resurrection.”

So, I went back to the Collect for Ash Wednesday, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

While I tend to agree with Evan, the Collect does imply both judgement and grace (or to use his words, “repentance and redemption”) I think that the season of Lent encourages us to slow down and sit in that place of repentance for a while.  I think that perhaps leaving the Ash Wednesday liturgy, having received ashes but not yet ready to receive the Eucharist is a good thing.  Ash Wednesday is four days until The First Sunday in Lent, the first mini-Easter of the season.  Coming back to the rail, having spent four days in thoughtful reflection on sin, repentance, and redemption, perhaps we are more able to realize the Holy Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood.  That is my hope, at least, and why I’m glad that this year, we are taking the allowances of the rubrics and holding off on the Eucharist until Sunday.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

my cross

Last year, during our evening service on Ash Wednesday, several different readers took turns reading a piece about “taking up our cross.”  What stuck out most for our folks, so much so that it still gets mentioned almost a year later, is that taking up our cross is something that we choose to do.

My all day fight with Sprint over their awful service is not my cross to bear.

My aching back is not my cross to bear.

That annoying person in the express line with 34 items is not my cross to bear.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples about his cross, and they don’t like what they hear.  I’m guessing it is as upsetting to hear about Jesus’ suffering as it is to imagine their own.  Peter will have to choose to recommit himself to Jesus.  He’ll have to choose to preach the Gospel despite warnings from the Temple.  He’ll have to choose to walk the whole way to his cross, hung upside down, for the sake of the Gospel.

What makes this hard, for me, is that the minor inconveniences of life (see above – don’t use Sprint) are enough to drive us batty sometimes.  Choosing to add a cross on top of that seems just plain stupid.  Which is, I think, the basis of Peter’s argument, “God forbid it.”

The good news is that Easter came.  Even in the depths of Holy Saturday, we, who live on this side of the Cross, know that Sunday’s comin’.  If only it would hurry on up.