Ash Wednesday is one of those lesser known holy days. It kicks off the season of Lent with fasting, deprivation, and waiting: all things that kind of run counter to our culture of indulgence, convenience, and immediate gratification. In addition, a smear of ashes on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality is not only a damper to the outward appearance, but also to our general sense of self-worth. It’s a cross-shaped smear of dirt on your forehead and your ego.
Who wants to be reminded that we were made out of dirt and will return to the dirt?
I attended an Ash Wednesday service yesterday morning before work and really enjoyed the readings, prayers, and other elements of the liturgy at an Episcopal church. The point is confession and repentance, getting a clean slate as we begin the season of Lent in preparation for the cross and resurrection that punctuate the conclusion of these 40 days.
I really got into it, especially appreciating a lengthy time of confession where the prayer book listed just about every kind of sin and a prayer of repentance. Way to go Episcopals. But then we entered into the rite of the Eucharist and I lost my place. They skipped to a page earlier in the book. I missed the clue in italics and so spent a lot of time flipping around trying to find the right section.
When I finally found the right page, the other ten people were already up and moving toward the front for communion. I tagged along and then had a rather awkward moment. No one intended for this to happen, and it probably meant nothing, but when you’re the only new face among a band of regulars at a church, you read into things… Everyone hustled into place at the rail at the front, spread their elbows wide, and then waited for communion. Everyone had a spot except for me.
It was one of those poignant moments where any suspicion I had of being left out was symbolically slapped right in front of me. They all patiently waited for the minister to share the wine and bread with them while I just waited pathetically, like the kid not chosen to play in the game who has to watch everyone else from the sidelines. It was a very lonely moment.
As the group disbanded, I settled in, waiting for the minister to finish up with the others before he attended to me. It was really hard to focus on the sacrament at that moment. I was already struggling with not knowing anyone, of being an outsider, of getting awkward nods and smiles during the passing of the peace, and of standing like a loser behind the insider group during communion.
I beat a hasty retreat at the end of the service, struggling with the good things about repentance and the really, really hard things about visiting a church: feeling out of place, felling like an invader, feeling like everyone is watching you, feeling like no one really wants to talk to you because they’d much rather speak with their friends. I was half-way to my car when one of the ladies, one of the “nodders” during the passing of the peace, kind of dramatically ran out the door and called to me. She introduced herself and passed along some information about the rest of the events happening at that church for the Lenten season. We chatted for a few minutes before parting.
I felt pretty good. At least somebody took the step to reach out. It gives me hope. I can believe for a minute that Christians generally aren’t that bad after all. That churches aren’t just scaled down, member-only country clubs for the spiritually savvy. I believe that some Christians really do care about the rest of the world and aren’t consumed with navel-gazing at their own little churches, their little kingdoms, their little holy clubs. I believe that the world isn’t screwed because the people entrusted with the good news have a shot at making things right.
Settling into my car I looked up at my forehead in the rearview mirror to have a gander at my little ash cross.
I almost screamed, “What the hell???” I didn’t. I was too surprised.
The minister probably tried to make a cross on my forehead. I have to believe he did. But he didn’t succeed. In a large black smear of ashes on my forehead was a prominent,frighteningly large “L.”