Yesterday, I went to an ash Wednesday service.
The little chapel overlooking the sea was stuffed to the gills. Literally ever seat was taken. People packed into the back standing without elbow room. Children piled on parent’s laps. Strangers shared hymnals. My friend and I were jostled upstairs, and ended standing with the choir overlooking the hundreds of people that had come for the evening service.
You have to understand this: St. Andrews is a very small town. And this was one of three services. University life is often ruled by a secular sort of dogmatism. To see a chapel overflowing with every age, nationality, and race was its own sort of miracle.
And what did they all come for?
A simple hymn is sung.
And then readings, none of them very cheerful.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17. In it, the prophet calls for a day of mourning. He calls for all people to meet together and weep over their sins. The leaders, the families, the children, even.
Isaiah 58:1-12. A chastisement from God for the half hearted, hypocritical praise of his people. He calls them to learn justice. To become clean.
Psalm 51:1-7. A prayer of penitence.
2 Corinthians 5:20. A call to be reconciled to God.
Matthew 6:1-6. Jesus’ call to humble piety, and quiet right living.
As I listened, I thought how un-userfriendly these readings are. On Ash Wednesday, there is no simple “Have faith, be nice, God loves you.” It is an acknowledgement of sin, an acceptance of death, a mighty call to righteousness. This seems rather out of style these days.
And then, everyone goes to receive ashes. In sombre lines, they all go up. Young, old, professional, academic, teenagers, mothers, fathers, lipsticked, frazzled…
“From dust you came, and to dust you will return.”
These words are spoken over you, as your forehead is etched with an ashen cross.
A few prayers are then spoken, and everyone leaves.
As I walked home with my friend under and azure sky, I couldn’t help but wonder: why does this service draw so many? In a world of light, and medicine, and power, and distraction… why do so many gather to be told that they are sinful and they will die?
It is, I think, because we know it is true. Because we long for someone to say it out loud. And we long for a hope to overcome it.
To me, sin and death have always seemed the most self evident of doctrines.
It seems whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, etc. we share at least two beliefs in common.
- We will all die.
- Something is wrong with the world, and with us. Though we have a desire for goodness, wholeness, and uprightness, we experience the opposite in the world and in ourselves. Things tend towards disorder.
Of course, different creeds approach the explanations for these most basic experiences diversely. Perhaps some creeds are embarrassed to call this tendency to moral imperfection “sin.” The Christian says sin or this tendency to go wrong comes from a fallen nature. The communist says it comes from an oppressive bourgeoisie. The evolutionist says it comes from biological tendencies gone awry. But the fact remains that we can agree on these basic facts: we shall die, and there’s something wrong in the world and in us.
The world is not all as it ought to be.
But there is hope even in this acknowledgement of sin and death. To say the world is not as it ought to be is to admit that somewhere the in shadows of our minds, we are conscious of a way the world ought to be. Why are we so bothered by death if this is just the way things are? Why haven’t we, after all these generations, grown used to this tendency toward decay? Why has evolution not made us immune to the crippling fear of death? To feelings of guilt? Why do we grieve for a world we’ve never known?
Staring these realities in the face, reveals an anguish that points to hope. We grieve because we feel we aren’t meant to grieve. We feel guilty for doing wrong, because we were formed to do right.
Lent acknowledges these tensions, and it invites us into them. Through fasting, weather its sugar or coffee or Facebook, we take away from ourselves the distractions that so often cloud our vision. But, Lent ought not to be an exercise in gloominess. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the way things are, and an inviting into these tensions of our lives.
I think perhaps so many people flock to Ash Wednesday services because they tell the truth about the world and ourselves: we do wrong, we will die, we long for salvation. These are hushed truths in this silicon world of ours, but they are deeper than the distractions we can muster. In Lent, we acknowledge our need, we long to be good, we long for life to the fullest.
So, we groan.
We groan with all creation, but perhaps these are not the groanings of death, but of birth.
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:22-25)