Ash Wednesday in the House of Christianity

The cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ’s victory over death. The words “Remember that thou art dust and that to dust thou shall return” are not to be taken as the quasi-form of a kind of “sacrament of death” (as if such a thing were possible). It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.

Thomas Merton

dsc00665I attended an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service this evening. The program they passed out gave us Merton’s introductory passage to glimpse what Christianity was not. As I stood in a chapel I had last entered when I attended a Rufus Wainright concert (not exactly a journey into the sacred as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John might have it), I came to realize how much I have to learn about what Christianity is.

Sure, I’ve got the basics down and I understand what it was to be raised a Catholic kid in the 80s. But for all my reading, it was not until I watched a sparsely attended ritual held together with a crazy quilt of readings and quotations that I was able to look through the windows of Christianity in a new way and realize, despite its many doors, it is still just one large house.

Though I now have a smudge of ash upon my forehead, I did not remember the significance of this temporary mark when I decided to step in after work. I am sure that I knew once, but it was not the sort of information I ever had to retain. All I knew was that it made sense that I was in that chapel. I needed a place for quiet contemplation to mark the day and the remnants of my own history and the power of ancestral memory set me comfortably enough in the Christian fold.

Perhaps it was because I am not a student, but for all that I had the credentials of a Christian, I still felt like I stood outside and looked in the windows of their ritual.

This is not to say that I felt alienated. In fact, I felt the complete opposite.

I was amazed to realize that the sentiments included in the Litany of Penance so closely echoed untutored words I have whispered into my own soul. The language, that I know a younger, more recalcitrant version of myself would have found debasing, felt necessarily humble and honest. The professed admissions of failings and the hunger for reconciliation at first seemed too heavy a cross to bear, but then I realized that I force myself through such rigorous self examination all the time. And I am much less forgiving of my own sins than God promises to be…

Yes, it all made sense, and the prayers rang true.  Enough of me was at home there.

dsc00383But still, a portion of me observed from outside this house of Christ. That part of me stood rooted into the earth and felt the rain fall upon my face and trusted the sun would come out to dry me in time. I was able to love everything marks this first day of Lent because I know I am welcome in that building, but am comforted to know I can still step away in order to speak the language of a Yoga Sutra or an Arabic mantra.

Other faiths’ houses of worship do not offer the organic comfort that the Catholicism of my heritage does, but their traditions still offer sweet succor for the soul. Sitting in the warm embrace of Christ I was able to understand that every moment is sweeter when I can embrace all spiritual possibilities. Churches, mosques, and temples – they are a collection of neighbors’ homes planted in a circle on God’s beautiful green earth.

6 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday in the House of Christianity

  1. Danny Lucas February 26, 2009 / 12:20 pm

    In the movie “Titanic”, ONE lifeboat came back. The searchlight looks for life, but finds death all around.

    Rose awakens from chill to find Jack dead in the water, and finally unclenches his death grasp from her hand, swims to a nearby White Star employee with a whistle, grabs it, and tweets loudly, and repeatedly.

    She screams “Come back! Come back!”

    It is her only hope to be saved.
    Unless the ONE boat returns to her, she will perish.

    The Ashes of Wednesday on the forehead of the body, are a silent scream of the soul, to the ONE with a lifeboat:
    “Come back! Come back!”
    “Save me!”
    The body that carries you and your soul will soon sink.

    The eventuality of all bodies is recalled with the utterance,
    “Remember man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shall return”.
    Anyone who has been to a funeral home knows this, and we can see it visibly. So we believe.

    But the invisible is also present.
    Every soul has a destination.
    The only variance of thought among the living is where that destination is located. What we can NOT see, the invisible, is harder to believe, and creates confusion.

    The choice to put ash on the forehead indicates belief that HE who saves, will come back for you, because the invisible soul has made a choice on destiny eternally.

    That black mark yesterday silently echoes to the Light of the World forever…”Come back!”.

    He will.

  2. Sunrise Sister February 26, 2009 / 2:34 pm

    I’ve read a few posts this a.m. re attending Ash Wednesday services – one stating – “never really heard the dust to dust, only the repentance call”. A personal observance of one who had been gravely wounded on Fat Tuesday due to his sexual orientation, who was now called upon by God to lead us in worship of repentance, forgiveness and now your post which for me speaks of inclusion rather than exclusion, although perhaps you wouldn’t have felt comfortable if you had zero experience in the custom and tenets of the church…..for whatever reason you were comfortable I’m glad to hear that it was an Episcopal church that you “ducked” into and that you thought it was a good thing.

    I think the comments from Danny are also very powerful….come back and the words “don’t forget me” that I conjure up right now seem apropos of the black marked forehead.

  3. Barbara February 26, 2009 / 6:19 pm

    I went to a noon Mass where my friend, a priest named Paul, traced the cross upon my forehead and spoke of repentance and following the Gospel. He also had a challenge for me, which I heard in his homily. Lent challenges us to live more deliberately. For me that is the significance of the ashes. Sure, we do die some day, but it also a reminder that we must live as if that were tomorrow.

  4. pam March 4, 2009 / 4:35 pm

    Beautifully put. I love, “Enough of me was at home there” AND “collection of neighbors’ homes.”

  5. Nerdy Renegade April 17, 2009 / 1:22 pm

    Hi 🙂

    Thinking of you and hoping you’re okay.

    You are missed in this forum.



  6. Bob Weisenberg May 1, 2009 / 10:36 am

    I was just thinking of reading some Merton, after seeing a great PBS special about him. What books do you recommend?

    Bob W.

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