Today is Ash Wednesday, an observance that may not have been part of our religious experiences as children, especially if we were not raised in the Catholic Church. It’s only in recent decades that many Protestants have gotten on board with the practice, which seems to stand in opposition to the Gospel text prescribed for the day:
“When you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:16-18 CEB)
It is hard not to see ashen foreheads as precisely the public display of religion that Jesus seemed to be warning against. So why has its popularity seemed to rise? Even in the Catholic Church, where Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation (a day when the faithful are expected to attend mass), it is often the most-attended non-Sunday mass of the year. Why all the eagerness for these ashes?
In a 2016 Time Magazine interview, priest and Duke Divinity School professor, Lauren Winner, asserts that it might have something to do with closing the mind-body disconnect that’s evolved over the years in Western Christianity. She notes a craving to bring the body more fully into the life of faith, which for many can seem an abstract intellectual exercise requiring words upon words of explanation.
But the ashes, and the few, simple words spoken with them, bring another experience entirely. “It’s very powerful to say…‘you are dust and to dust you shall return,’” Winner says. “I keep waiting for it to get overly familiar and lose its power, but it doesn’t.” She also notes how profound the experience of receiving the ashes might be for those who have recently mourned a loss, potentially having buried or spread ashes in the last year.
One of my sacred responsibilities is to guide others through the process of burying the dead. Especially when that occurs in more rural cemeteries, I always give families the option to lower the urn during the service and to take turns placing some earth on top of it. Understandably, that’s not everyone’s preference, but I have also seen it act as a healing balm to those who have gathered. Amidst the stiff formality that can accompany such moments, having the chance to kneel, get our hands dirty, and participate in that return to the earth can help us move with and through our grief in ways that words just can’t.
This year, our approach to Lenten worship will also strive to bring mind and body closer together as we live and grow in the faith. Some of us are more naturally drawn to contemplation, while others need to keep our hands and bodies busy; we’ll present ideas and opportunities for engaging both. We’ll also be bringing more voices (and instruments!) into the room, so that approaches to faith are not always filtered through the pastor’s lenses. And each week, at the beginning and close of worship, we’ll invite everyone to share in just a word or two how we come before God, for as our gospel stories reveal, honesty and vulnerability are often the beginning of miracles.
While public displays of religion are not without risk—of getting it wrong, falling into hypocrisy, or shoring up an unhealthy sense of belonging—they can sometimes serve as the discomfort we need to grow, release, and discover. It is my prayer this Lent that we might share in this process together, beginning—once again—with ashes.