A Word In Time
The beginning of Lent tomorrow—Ash Wednesday--takes me back to my very first Ash Wednesday liturgy. I was 27 years old, brand new to the Episcopal Church. I had just left my job as a newspaper reporter so that I could work on a congressional campaign. And I was also starting a new job at All Saints Pasadena where we were creating a new interfaith organization for nuclear disarmament. That Wednesday was busy: there were lots of things to do at both my jobs, at the church, and at the campaign office. A big campaign fundraiser was coming up, and we were sorting through donor files and addressing envelopes. We were in a frenzy of working the files, the phones, the mail, caught up in the excitement of campaign season.
As evening rolled around, I decided to duck out of the campaign office and sneak down the street to the church. I knew it was Ash Wednesday, and I was curious about the ashes business. I don’t think I ever went to church on Ash Wednesday as a child; I certainly don’t think my Lutheran church did anything with ashes. And I wasn’t a real regular at the church in in my twenties. I just worked there. I was attracted to that church a place of social justice activity, so I had just started coming back to church on Sunday mornings. I liked the sermons: there were good sermons, intelligent sermons preached by George Regas and Bill Rankin. And the choir was good.
But I wasn’t interested, that Ash Wednesday, in anything too religious. In my twenties, I said that my religion was politics.
But something drew me to that church that night. Something pulled me inside that door.
I don’t remember much about that service. I certainly don’t remember the sermon. I remember being embarrassed to participate in something that didn’t seem to have relevance in the world I knew. I remember thinking my buddies in the newspaper office would never believe this.
And then, I remember the smudge of ashes on my forehead. I remember feeling clean, as if that smudge on my forehead scoured my soul.
And something shifted, a huge seismic shift deep down inside. I didn’t know then what the shift was about. All of that would begin to come clear in the months and years ahead. But that smudge of ashes stopped me in my tracks and turned me to face in a new direction.
That was the first time I knew that Lent had something to do with direction. Lent is the time to take a good look at the direction we’ve been traveling in and see what that means. Lent is the time to change direction, the time to see what in our lives may have turned to ash, what may be leading us to the fire, the spark of new life.
Perhaps that night I heard those words from Joel “Return to the Lord, your God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” Somehow, I knew that I was beginning again, that what had turned to ashes, the things I thought might keep me from God—like politics--in fact drew me closer to God. It was a beginning, a meeting of a God I hadn’t yet found, yet had always yearned for, a God to whom I could return, a God who would accept me as I am.
Something began with that smudge of ashes that continues, although not in a steady, linear progression of improvement of course. The intricacies of the dance with God cannot be contained in some sort of linear movement from bad to good or tempest to serenity or fear to faith. The dance weaves through this life and into the next, I am convinced, with twists and turns and surprises and collapses and tragedies and triumphs, all caught up in the complexity of human and divine relationship.
It was the smudge of ashes that invited me into that dance. That smudge of ashes reminded me of things I had learned in my earliest days of Sunday School, and at the same time told me that now I was in startling new territory. I believe now that that mix of the bone-deep familiar and the terror of the untried are the hallmarks of the spiritual journey.
I believe that smudge of ashes introduced me to the power of symbol, the power of symbolic act to point beyond itself to the truth it represents. I knew that smudge of ash would look silly when I went back to the campaign office. I knew I couldn’t rationally explain it. I could not do so today. But I know that God spoke through that smudge, through the words and symbols of that liturgy and the actions of that community ritual, that odd Wednesday night gathering. God spoke, not with a clap of thunder, but in the touch of some burnt and crumbled palm leaves. God spoke, and invited me into a life that was brand new life and at the same time as ancient as the creation itself. I was not joining another campaign or beginning another social justice project. I was grounding all the future projects of my life in a relationship with God, and that would change all those projects because it would change me. I had no idea, of course, that I was doing this, but I believe that is what happens when we tap into the ancient practices of a human community. We go deeper than anything we can predict or plan or explain. With our irrational ritual, we touch into the primordial forces of the universe, we touch God.
You never know what will happen when you enter into a community’s sacred dance. You never know what a smudge of ash, a touch of a hand, an exchange of the peace, a sip of wine or morsel of bread will convey. But it is always, always, an invitation into “another intensity”, as T. S. Eliot said, “a further union, a deeper communion”. (Four Quartets, East Coker.)
Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent is one of those invitations. This is one of those moments to join in the dance, where we will recognize many of the steps we’ve taken before, but where we will also cover some completely new ground. This is the moment that we might discover that the thing that pulls us inside, all the way inside with both feet, is that we are partners in this dance; we are all partners in this dance that carries us through the seasons of the church year, and the seasons of our lives. We hold one another, and we are all held fast by the One who, as Joel says, is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.
Echoes from the Edge
Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of the season of Lent, is a time in the Christian calendar to remember that we are dust and will one day return to the dust from which we are made. In past years, our community has taken the opportunity to observe this day in very public ways: we've imposed ashes on anyone who would like to receive them in Union Square or in the subway station.
This year we'll continue that tradition by meeting from 5:30-7:30 PM in the passageway between the 4th Ave./Pacific Street and Atlantic/Barclay's Center stations in Brooklyn (that's inside the subway system, so note that you'll have to pay fare to pass through the turnstiles) to give and receive ashes. All are welcome to come either to receive or help impose ashes. Rebecca White (of Fall Fair fame) will be playing the fiddle.
Spiritual Disciplines for Lent
The forty day season Lent is a time of stillness and contemplation that leads into Easter. Many Christians take up a spiritual practice for the season of Lent, either letting go of something unneeded in their lives, such as a certain food or a habit that doesn't contribute to the spiritual life, or take on a practice, such as praying more regularly. This is a great time to think about what your Lenten practice might be.
Check out St. Lydia's blog for Songs for Lent
You’ll find all the music you need for our observance of Lent at St. Lydia’s. Lent is a season of preparation when we pare things down and strip things away in order to hear the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Our music for the season reflects that sense of simplicity.
We gather every Sunday and Monday night to cook and share a sacred meal, just as the first followers of Jesus did. We eat, explore scripture, offer prayers, and sing together. Tied to the Lutheran and Episcopal traditions, our worship is rooted in the patterns of the Early Church.
Emily Scott is pastor at St. Lydia's, a Dinner Church in Brooklyn.
Finally, the Poet
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated Of dead and living. Not the intense moment Isolated, with no before and after, But a lifetime burning in every moment And not the lifetime of one man only But of old stones that cannot be deciphered. There is a time for the evening under starlight, A time for the evening under lamplight (The evening with the photograph album). Love is most nearly itself When here and now cease to matter. Old men ought to be explorers Here and there does not matter We must be still and still moving Into another intensity For a further union, a deeper communion Through the dark cold and empty desolation, The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.