Two years ago I put my ambivalence aside and went forward for the imposition of ashes. And it was a mess. Not messy with the ashes, but messy with the theology.
I'm a Winter Christian which means that lament is a pretty big part of my spiritual experience. But by and large the general tone of worship in evangelical culture tends to privilege the Summer Christian experience of unmitigated praise. The theology that informs this preference is often triumphalistic and symptomatic of what is called an over-realized eschatology. What is an over-realized eschatology? It's rushing ahead to heaven, victory, happiness and Easter. A refusal to sit with the Fall, brokenness, lament and Good Friday.
In the face of all that unmitigated praise Ash Wednesday stands out for us Winter Christians. Here is a ritual of dust, lament and ashes. Here's a worship experience that will resonate deeply with our souls.
So I went forward for the imposition of ashes. As a Winter Christian I was looking forward to the ashes, having them etched on my forehead with the sign of the cross as the words were intoned:
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust that you shall return."Words to stir the heart of every Winter Christian.
But guess what? When you are "adding on" the imposition of ashes in a non-liturgical church people can go off script. Because we are often unaware that there is a script. And without a script--a liturgy to follow--the people leading us can improvise and say what they want to say, what they think is fitting. And when that happens more often than not people default to the dominant chord of Summer Christian spirituality.
So I went forward and when the ashes were imposed on my forehead the words I got where these:
"Jesus loves you."Good gravy. That's a great sentiment, but I'm not coming forward on Ash Wednesday to hear "Jesus loves you." I hear that message every Sunday. What I want to hear, what my Winter Christian heart was looking for, was the hard stuff. The undiluted full-of-death stuff. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust that you shall return." But even on Ash Wednesday we struggle to get those words out. They are too scary, morbid, and depressing.
But that's exactly the point. And exactly why we need to stay on script. Otherwise our fears of death and brokenness cause us to rush past the ashes and into the happy place where all is cozy, sweet and comforting. We don't need an over-realized eschatology on Ash Wednesday. Easter, sure. But it's Ash Wednesday.
So this year, when I go forward, I'd like us to be on script. And I think we will be this year (the service is entitled Memento Mori). No chickening out. Yes, Ash Wednesday can be depressing, even morbid, but we need to say it. We need to hear it.
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust that you shall return."
It's Ash Wednesday.