Ash Wednesday and the Value of Tradition

painted cross on iron grate

Today marks the beginning of the forty-day Christian liturgical season known as Lent, a time of reflection, contemplation, and perhaps even sacrifice in preparation for the coming of the Holy Week that culminates in the celebration of Christ’s Easter resurrection. Throughout the world on Wednesday, Christians from across denominations and traditions will make themselves known through the imposition of ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads, small but conspicuous statements about their spiritual identities and, I suspect, their most pressing hopes.

We know from Tolkien that not all who wander are lost. The inverse, of course, is also true. Not all who find themselves moved to religious ritual are finished seeking. Most aren’t, even as many of us wander in and through various religious orbits, spiritual practices, and times of communion and estrangement from God and from each other. Those who will bear the mark of Christ’s cross on Ash Wednesday do so for different, even disparate reasons. Some will wear it as a proud (and I don’t mean prideful) badge, a faithful, even kerygmatic public statement. Some  receive the ashes and the Wednesday blessing because of the long pull of tradition. Others are compelled to it by a desire for that same pull and the hope that God might meet us in it. Not all, and perhaps not even many, who wander are lost. Not all who wear ashes are cradle Christians or Christian converts. Not all who take pause on Ash Wednesday will go on to observe a Christian Lent. Not all who hope for Easter’s promise necessarily believe it. Not all who want to feel able. But I do believe, somehow, that all who seek God will find.

I’ve never been much of an Ash-wearer, but I became one last year when confronted with the thousands-fold witness of marked heads on the subway. It was not so much the numbers themselves, but the odd occurrences: every other person in the long corridors beneath Time Square, every fourth or fifth on the 3, a small group walking towards me as I surfaced to street level. If a sacrament is, as theologians are fond of saying, a visible sign of an invisible truth, these pilgrims were sacraments for me. Their willingness to be marked as believers or seekers, and, in either case,  people needing something, made me willing, too. Going up the wrong flight of stairs at 14th Street Station and hitting the street at the Church of the Village meant I was greeted with a sign proclaiming Imposition. So then there I was, and there, it seemed, was God. I received ashes and a blessing, a charge to repent, believe, and live. In short, I was moved, felt something, lost my bearings. I didn’t know which way to walk when I came back out to the street. I believe I had a profound, even mystical experience, not because I succumbed to a ritual I’d never valued, but because I believe God uses what God can to meet us where we are. For me, a provisional-at-best Christian, a seminary grad burned out on church and religion, it was the totally new experience of ashes, of anointing prayer and blessing. It was whatever God said to my spirit while the bishop spoke to me.

Over the past year, I’ve found myself much more interested in the mystical Christian traditions than ever before, and needing them. I’ve felt more at home around ritual and process so long as I approach them from humility and from the recognition that God is always bigger than the things we do and that when God meets us in those things, it’s because God is God, not because we’ve done religious work God deems cosmically essential.  But it’s also true that our drive to meet God in places carved out by tradition echos something cosmically essential: an understanding that we want and need the mystical, the holy; a hope that God will meet us wherever it is we seek to find.

This Ash Wednesday, I am reminded that the power of Christian ritual has absolutely nothing to do with it being set down by patriarchs with apostolic authority or some other contrived historiography that super-values the existential (and perhaps compulsive) needs of long-dead saints.  For me, our rituals, like our stories, are opportunities to embrace the basic Christian claim: the in-breaking of God at every turn, the furious longing on God’s part for time and eternity with us.