>"How did it feel to be on the other side of the ashes?"

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That was the question posed of me by our Priest Associate, and I have to confess I had to ponder her question a while before thinking.

This year, since I was also acolyte and chalice bearer for our Ash Wednesday service, she also asked me to help impose ashes. As I thought about it, I realized the answer to her question is actually a three part answer, and it actually starts a day or so before Ash Wednesday. As with anything I ever do in serving at church in any capacity, thoughts about my role, whether it is serving as acolyte, lector, leader or Prayers of the People, has a “mechanical” component, a “projecting liturgically” component, and a “spiritual” component.

Any new task I am asked to do, inside or outside of church, you can bet that I think three-dimensionally about the actual physical task itself, and am very self-conscious that I do it smoothly and imperceptibly. At first, in preparation for the day, I thought about things like, “How much do I need to put on my thumb? How hard do I press? How big do I make the little crosses?”

I thought to myself, “I need practice doing this.” So I practiced on the most available victims–my dogs. Boomer was very cooperative, and was very good at displaying the look of a penitent. Little Eddie, on the other hand, was fairly annoyed with the process. But at least it warmed me up to the possibility that the worst thing that could happen–jumping off the altar and rubbing one’s head on the floor to rub the ashes off–probably wasn’t going to happen.

Once freed from my obsessions and compulsions about “the mechanics,” I could move on to the more serious stuff. In the Episcopal Church, anyone can impose ashes. It’s not a job consigned solely to the ordained. But it IS a job that recognizes “the priesthood of all believers.” I thought for a while about what the liturgy is trying to say to us. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. The first day of a 40 day preparation for 50 days of resurrection. A day to be most mindful of all the things that stand in our way of our own resurrections.

One day a year, the ashes become an outward and visible sign of the smudges on our own souls–the things we walk around and hide and hope no one sees. I thought about how there is a certain amount of discomfort with being out in public with a black, cross-shaped smudge on one’s forehead. I thought about how everyone thinks a little differently about this, and the different ways people think about it. Some folks don’t even go to Ash Wednesday services. I’ve heard people tell me, “I’m not going to go to church to have someone remind me I’m sinful.” That’s their right; I’m okay with that. Some folks wipe them off right after getting out of church because they simply don’t want dirt on their face in public. That’s okay too. Some folks have been taught not to wear them out in public because it is a little like being a Pharisee–showing your piety in public. There’s some truth to that, and I can understand that. Some wear them the rest of the day, and the most common reason I’ve heard is, “Well, it’s a tradition of the Church, and I’m not ashamed of it, so I just wear it.” My own personal behavior is probably a variant of that one.

I do tend to wear my smudge. Oh, a couple of times I’ve removed it when I had to be in a public venue where I don’t think it’s proper to mix church and state. But mostly I wear mine. My thought process is to remind myself that every day of my life, I walk around with those invisible smudges on my soul anyway, and wearing one on my forehead makes me consider a new possibility–“Would I behave differently if I knew everyone could see my “smudges”? What are those things I’d rather not have people see? What ought I change about those things?”

The other thing I thought about was “What is the message I am conveying by being one of the “appliers” of the ashes?” Part of me said, “It’s not my place to do it. It feels weird to be a lay person doing it. People associate it with a priestly thing. I’m not very priestly. It feels a little bit like I am telling others, “Here’s what I’ve got to say to you about YOUR sins. So there.” I have no right to tell people that.”

But then I realized that, because our church does not make this a “priests only” sort of thing, this is about that business of “the priesthood of all believers.” I am going to get them put on me same as I will be putting them on others. I have always allowed someone to impose ashes on me. It’s no different than allowing the sins of others to impose upon me. All of humankind shares a commonality with sin, and it is, in a lot of ways like ashes–it’s messy and we get it all over things we never intended to put it.” I thought about how during “the mud season” in the country, I often track mud in places I never intended, show up to work with mud on my pants that I have no clue how it got there, or look at my own hand and think, “Where in the world did I stick my hand in mud? I don’t remember.”

But prior to the service, I felt a bit of self-conscious discomfort about this “Who am I to do this, who am I to send an unspoken message from God about the sins of others, when my sins are ever before ME?” But just as the liturgy sometimes creates spots of discomfort in me, it also took it away. At the point just prior to the prayer where the celebrant blesses the ashes, our priest associate and I had worked out what she wanted for the mechanics. I was to hold the two pyxes out in my palm, and she would put her hand over them and say the prayer.

Then something happened that caught me off guard. In my mind, I had expected her to hover her hand over them, much as how she hovers her hands over the bread and wine in the epiclesis. But she didn’t. She PLACED her hand on the tops of the two pyxes and her fingers were brushing my palm. My mind is so prone to flashing instant messages when the Holy Spirit hits me in the head with the “holy 2×4,” and this time was no exception. In big black letters, the whiteboard of my brain saw the message:

“This is not about the human hands that do this; this is about the ashes being the center of what is surrounded by human flesh, with no boundaries between priests and parishioners, and God speaks to us with whatever hands happen to be in the way.”

Suddenly, I felt okay with the process. It totally switched my mode from one of “self-consciousness” to being just another unique piece in that grand and mysterious puzzle that is “The Liturgy.”

I became aware of two things. One was that I consciously put my hand on each person’s forehead to pull back their hair a little bit to apply the ashes with my thumb. I thought about how, when I’m sick, it’s always so comforting for someone to simply feel my forehead to see if I have a fever. That simple little form of physical touch acknowledges my weakness, and shows love and care. In my mind, God cradles our heads in our hands, even when we are soul-sick. I realized I wanted others to feel “cradled,” not “punished.”

The other thing I became conscious of was to start the line “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” independent of when our priest associate started it. I didn’t want to “ride her coattails.” I didn’t want there to be this “dual voice.” I wanted it to become a single voice of all humanity, like singing a round or doing a monastic chant. It seemed right to me that the continuous sound of that line could become in itself a prayer of contemplation, and to keep it going like a round created “prayer space,” so people didn’t hear the words as spoken, but could go BEHIND the words and find God in their own spaces. I realized my own love of “creating” wanted to give room for others to create things in themselves, and I would just ride the wave and enjoy the view.

So the answer to her question was not what I expected. I wasn’t “on the other side” of the ashes. I was in the middle of them.

>"Stop fretting. Come and eat."

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“Stop fretting. Come and eat.”

That was my late grandmother’s general cure for any difficult situation. Just drop it for now, come sit down at the table, and we’ll all eat together. THEN we’ll work through it.

Mind you, this was the advice from the person in my family “most likely to clash with you.” No doubt, my granny was a fiery woman. She was a highly opinionated, not easily persuaded person. But she understood the need to call a truce at the dinner table.

The dinner table is an interesting place for me. It’s my source of greatest comfort and the source of my greatest baggage. Growing up in an alcoholic family, it was the place most likely to erupt at my house. My parents’ table was a far different place than my grandparents’ table. It was like two different worlds. My parents’ table was a battlefield; my grandparents’ table was an oasis.

The magic of my grandparents’ table was probably what drew me to the full meaning of the Eucharist. My grandparents’ table had one rule: NO FIGHTING. I firmly belived that the main reason her generation survived the Depression was they sat together at the table and shared what they had.

Even living alone, I realize that a “shared meal” is important to me. Home alone, I share with my dogs. At the homes of others, I share good conversation, respectful debate, compliments to the chef. If you gave me the choice of sharing leftovers at your house, vs. a meal at the fanciest restaurant in town, I’d pick the leftovers at the homes of friends. My guess is that the level to which it touches my heart for someone to invite me to put my feet under their dinner table would surprise them. When I think about certain friends of mine, the images that often come into play in my mind are images of “sitting at their kitchen table.” Likewise, my fondest memories of “good days at church” center around the altar and the sharing the Eucharistic table.

Now, that doesn’t mean my entire experience has been happy happy joy joy. As I mentioned earlier, I have those fond memories DESPITE some very traumatic dinner table memories, and the Eucharistic table is no exception. There have been times I did NOT feel welcome at God’s table, or made to feel less of a full participant in the process. Suffice it to say it had more to do with experiences in my past where I learned that there are people out there who use God’s table as punishment, or a way to separate and classify, or a way to create guilt. There are times I might have felt so uncomfortable about myself that I did not feel worthy of God’s table. But these are all feelings, that, the only way they are ever overcome is to keep coming to the table anyway.

As I alluded to in my previous post, Ash Wednesday is the time we go to the altar twice–one to get the ashes on our forehead, and once to share the sacramental meal. I think it’s important to recognize we return that second time, “dirty.” Our being holy and squeaky clean is NOT a requirement to share the body and blood of Christ. In fact, if that were the case, why would we need it at all? The truth of the matter is, every week, whether we recognize it or not, we ARE coming to the table with dirt under our fingernails, or with the tar of a weary world smeared on us, or with dog doo on our shoes. Ash Wednesday is the only day where we wear a visible and outward sign of that “dirt.”

It’s the time I feel the most unsure, the most separated, the most out of place that I have to remember my grandmother’s voice–“Stop fretting. Come and eat.”

>Palms to ashes, crush ’em to dust

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(Photo from the author of Staying Awake)

For three years now, I’ve taken it upon myself to be “The Burner of the Palms” for Ash Wednesday. Tradition holds that the ashes for Ash Wednesday be the ashes from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Now, it doesn’t matter that I end up each year making enough ashes to smear crosses on half of Kirksville–I like to make them every year simply because I like keeping with the ancient tradition. It doesn’t matter that you can actually buy palm ashes from religious supply houses–I just like the notion of our parish getting smeared with “our” ashes.

I took on this ministry of sorts to make our late “queen of the Altar Guild’s” wish come true. We had been using “store-bought ashes” until three years ago, and it sort of galled her. She would wrinkle up her nose at the little package of store-bought ashes and grunt, “These are not very good ashes. We really should be making our own.” (Now, I don’t really know what qualifies as “not very good ashes,” but I took her at her word.) So the next Palm Sunday, I grabbed all the leftover palms and put them out in my garage.

The first year was kind of a comedy of errors. I didn’t let them dry out long enough, and tried to burn them late that summer, experimenting with a few in a coffee can. After throwing lighter fluid and, eventually motor oil, I got them burned, but they didn’t smell like anything anyone would want on their forehead. So I let them dry out a few more months and tried again. This time I got the bright idea to put them on the gas grill and let them start to smoke a little before lighting them. Success! The only problem was I had the fire under them too hot, and burned a hole in the cheap roasting pan, and lost about half the ashes. It was a very embarrassing display for someone who loves fire and “burning stuff” as much as I do!

The second year, however, I was ready. I knew enough to let the palms “smoke” on the higher rack in the gas grill. I suddenly appeared to be a “professional palm burner.” This year went without a hitch.

This year, I pondered the therapeutic nature of my annual duty. Burning the palms carries a lot of positive symbolism for me. The palms slated for burning represent a year’s worth of things in my life that were “not quite right.” They are the old things, the dried out things, the dessicated things, the things I’d like to have a do-over. They are the things worth repenting, the things worth burying, the things worth dispersing. It’s good to watch them burn.

After they are burned, the next step is to pulverize them to dust. I usually use something like the bottom of an old coffee cup to grind them down. It feels renewing, somehow, to take those burned leaves and crush them to a fine powder. I put my weight into my arm and put a little “oomph” to it. I think about the Second Law of Thermodynamics–that everything, over time, becomes more random. The things that mattered last year and got in my way, or hampered my faith journey in some way are becoming more random, more unrecognizable. Again, there’s a sense of renewal with that, a feeling that we really can start over, if we so choose.

I remember the first year “my” ashes were used. Lots of people commented on how nice and black they were. The “store bought” ones of previous years were a little on the gray side. I got an odd satisfaction about that–that my work, even in a somber moment such as Ash Wednesday, made others feel that they got the “real deal”, the full experience of the tradition.

But for me, burning and pulverizing the ashes gives me a fuller sense of what it means for our sins to be forgiven, for God to no longer remember them, for them to be flung as far as east is from west. I think about how everyone walks out of the service on Ash Wednesday with the “same dirt” on them. My sins are not so unique. They’re the same as everyone else’s. We bear the corporate burden of each other’s sins. We’re not so much our brother’s keeper as we are our brother’s sibling. All our sins are made up of the same DNA, so to speak.

What makes the Ash Wednesday service unique is it’s the one time we go forward twice–the first time to accept our common sins, and the second time to receive a common meal. There’s a tendency, I think, to think of the “sins” part, the “From dust you came and to dust you will return” part as a solo adventure, but in reality, it’s just as common and corporate as the meal.

Stay tuned–I’ll blog about the meal next.