So long, Ash Wednesday

by Kristin on March 10, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by xlibber

When I bought my plane tickets to New York, I didn’t know I was scheduling myself to fly on Ash Wednesday. It’s not the sort of thing that occurs to me a few weeks after Christmas.

But Ash Wednesday has never really been in my consciousness, much. I grew up United Methodist, and always wondered what was up with the annually ash-marked foreheads in my significantly Catholic town. My family didn’t go to church on Ash Wednesday, let alone get marked by ashes or gravely decide to give something up.

As an adult, my relationship with Ash Wednesday and Lent has waxed and waned. I’ve gone to churches that make a bigger deal of it, and to churches that seem to ignore it. I’ve attended Catholic Ash Wednesday services with a friend who feels she needs that somber symbolism to make it all sink in, and I’ve let the day slip by without any awareness (until that moment when I pass someone on the sidewalk and wonder about the smudge of dirt on his forehead). I’ve tried “giving things up” for Lent, with various levels of success, and I’ve felt guilty about not giving anything up for Lent (or for giving up something that seemed too easy—a cop-out).

Ungrounded (aka: up in the air)

Rushing through O’Hare airport yesterday, juggling my bags and coffee as I followed signs to my gate, I felt vaguely bad about traveling on Lent—making a day that I already struggle with even harder to grasp in a meaningful way. Every time I glanced at Twitter, I saw someone else mentioning what they were giving up or taking on, and what church service they were going to. I thought, every so often, about things I could give up. Maybe something big, like caffeine, or sugar or alcohol! And then I selfishly thought about how this New York trip was my chance to have fun with friends in the big city. I didn’t want to give anything fun up. And then, of course, I felt guilty. Again.

(Aside: I have a feeling that those of you who struggle with this sort of thing will completely get what I’m talking about, and those of you who don’t will think I’m slightly crazy.)

It’s all very indicative, though, of my relationship with God, which has been in various stages of grounded and ungrounded over the years. There were many years when I was trying to figure out what God “wanted” from me—who he wanted me to be, how he wanted me to act, what hoops he wanted me to jump through (surely there were hoops). Then there were the years when I seemed to stop caring what God wanted from me, followed by a period of awakening, a realization that what God wants is for me to be me. He wants me to relate to him in a way that is meaningful and real for me.

I’m not saying this should be a faith of convenience, comfort and ease. I want to be challenged and pushed. There are many things I know I need, deep down. I need to stop and be still more. I want to pray more. I want to figure out what Lent is really all about—what God might be trying to teach me during this season, and how the weeks leading up to Easter might become more meaningful for me.

Moving away from “supposed to”

But as far as all of the “supposed to’s” and “should haves,” and the guilt that too often sidles up to religion? I’m pretty sure that’s not what God wants for me during Lent, or any time. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s worked hard to try to steer me away from that path, so maybe that’s the best way to honor him right now—by being aware of where I am, right now. Physically as well as spiritually.

Physically, I’m in New York. Spiritually, I’m feeling a bit adrift. Yes, yesterday was “A Day” on the church calendar, but it was also just a Wednesday, another day to muddle along, mess up a bit, learn something, reassess and move on. I can say farewell to Ash Wednesday for another year, and look ahead toward tomorrow.

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  • Kirstin

    My first thought when I see that smudge on someone’s forehead is “Shoot. I forgot to make pancakes.” They have Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnevale in Brazil; in the part of England where I spent a substantial amount of time, they make pancakes. They’re more like crepes than our pancakes, and the folks I knew ate them only with lemon and sugar on Shrove Tuesday. I’ve long wanted these pancakes to be an annual event on my food calendar, but year after year, the smudges tell me I’ve missed it. And somehow making those pancakes–with the lemon and sugar–any other time of year feels like cheating, even though I no longer celebrate the Easter season.

    That sense of something grasped at–but not with enough conviction to reach it–resonated with me in your post.

  • The Modern Gal

    If adrift is what you feel about your spirituality, then Lent is a perfect time to try to recapture it. I know every different version of Christianity tends to approach Lent differently. As a Catholic, I’ve always been taught that Lent is all about disciplining myself when it comes to spirituality and drawing nearer to Jesus through prayer, fasting (the giving-something-up bit and not eating meat on Fridays bit) and almsgiving. When I was younger I used to think of Lent as a grim time — that dark time when I had to give up something I love and when we talk about Jesus’ death, but I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older the beauty of Lent and the opportunity it gives me to focus on my spirituality.

    If you’re in a place where you’re especially susceptible to guilt (and it sounds like you are), I’d start small — make an effort to take five extra minutes for prayer each day or even every couple days or try to do one work of charity that you might not have otherwise done. Even the smallest thing might make you feel less adrift.

  • Lisa

    Lent and Advent are my two favorite liturgical seasons – I guess I like preparation and anticipation more than culmination and celebration?

    I have found the “discipline” of Lent to be more meaningful to me if I (sometimes in addition to giving something up) add something in. Which means I’m essentially giving up free time or something else that drops off the priority list. I reflect on what’s getting between me and the life I am called to live and that is where I focus my discipline. This year it seems almost too simple (though it’s not!) but the focus is on clearing off the table for dinner rather than eating among piles of mail, notepads, and the laptop that all seem to find their way to disrupting our evening meal time.

    But, I do understand the disconnect of traveling on a “special day” … I’ll be in the air on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and/or Easter Sunday (or all depending – getting back from Bulgaria takes awhile!) and anticipate it feeling very strange. The year I was in Spain for Thanksgiving never felt like fall was quite right!

  • Katie

    It does feel strange to travel on special days, or even holy days – and I, too, have felt guilty in the past for not giving up something for Lent. Or for giving up something that’s not “significant” – and I had a housemate in college who gave up sweets and meat one year, so how was I going to top that?

    I think you’re right, though, about God not wanting us to torture ourselves with guilt. And I think being present is a way to honor our lives and the One who gave them to us.

    That said, I do love the ritual of Ash Wednesday – for some reason I found it especially moving this year. And ever since living in the UK a few years ago, I’ve made pancakes with lemon and sugar on Shrove Tuesday. Not because I ever give up pancakes for Lent, but just as another way to mark this time. (Besides, they are delicious. And they provide a way for my husband and me to enter into the season together.)

  • Kristin T.

    Kirstin, I laughed when I read your “I forgot to make pancakes” line. Yes, there is something there, about longing for ritual and at the same time almost subconsciously avoiding it. As you said, it’s something grasped at, but without quite enough conviction. I’m still hoping you will have people over for pancakes next year. Shall I try to remind you? :)

    The Modern Gal, yes, that’s what I suspected—that Lent is for the adrift. And I’m always in a place where I’m susceptible to guilt! Gah. I will think about it some more, and start small as you suggest. Just because Ash Wednesday is over doesn’t mean I’ve missed the boat.

    Lisa, I like how you put that, about preparation and anticipation. And this is a great way to approach it: “I reflect on what’s getting between me and the life I am called to live and that is where I focus my discipline.” Beautiful and wise. Thank you.

    Katie, yeah, when someone close to you is giving up all sweets and meats, you sort of feel like throwing in the towel! I like that you and your husband have found a way to enter into Lent together. Maybe that’s what my husband and I need to do with our girls—create a tradition around which we can have a conversation and shared awareness, along with individual choices/actions. Thanks for giving me a glimpse at your tradition.

  • Tanya

    I grew up not observing Lent either, for reasons similar to yours. After I was ordained, though, my first pastorate was in a United Methodist Church where they had a history of celebrating Ash Wednesday–ashes and all. I came to appreciate the service and the lectionary texts that are set for that day. . . all of which have to do with how to make an “acceptable sacrifice” to God, and what “real worship” looks like. (Curiously, they always have something to do with the more difficult sacrifices related to practicing justice, mercy and humility instead of self-interest and self-preservation; they never say anything about giving up chocolate or wine or meat.) The forty days of Lent (plus Sundays) may just be long enough to establish a new habit. . . or at least, help us to focus in an intentional way. Having a set amount of time helps to focus the mind.

    Psalm 51 is the one that’s set for every Ash Wednesday. It’s a powerful poem of penitence that expresses the same yearnings you’ve so beautifully expressed in your reflections. When I finished reading your entry, the verse that came to me was, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51:17) Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’ translation renders it this way: “I learned God-worship when my heart was shattered. Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice.”

    The Gospel reading that’s used comes from the end of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” passage, where Jesus gives instruction about how to show true humility in worship. “And whenever you do fast, do not look dismal. . . but when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Mt. 6:16-18) It was from this instruction that one of the UCC churches I ministered with had taken up the practice of anointing people with fragrant oil in the shape of a cross on their forehead instead of imposing ashes. The symbolism is powerful: oil is an ancient symbol of healing, of restoration, of being called and identified for a divine purpose. And that’s what I do now as a regular practice in my Ash Wednesday services. There’s no public display on the person’s forehead when they exit the service, but the scent of sandalwood oil close to their nose reminds the individual that they’ve spent time reflecting on their desire and intention to walk a bit more closely with God than they have been. It’s also a private but powerful sensory reminder that the primary message of the cross is one of healing, hope, wholeness, transformation achieved through an extravagant act of love.

    I think the fact that you’re trying to “figure out what Lent is really all about—what God might be trying to teach me during this season, and how the weeks leading up to Easter might become more meaningful for me” shows that you do, in fact, get the point (or at least, the potential) of it better than a whole lot of people. Thank you for sharing so honestly.

  • Kristin T.

    Tanya, I feel like I just stepped out of a much-needed pastoral care session. Thank you for taking the time to listen to me, to listen to God, and to share with me what he has taught you. There are so many powerful insights here. I am going to read Psalm 51 tonight, and think/pray more about healing and what I want to give to God rather than penitence and what I should “give up.”