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.

Gloria! In te domine!

photo by Valerie Everett

Today is the 12th Day of Christmas and tonight is 12th Night, the end of Christmastide.  Tomorrow is the first day ofEpiphany, a liturgical season during which the Christian tradition has, in theory, stressed God’s radical inclusion, God’s manifestation in Christ, and the revelation of that presence to humanity.  The celebrative model in the West has traditionally been the visit of the Three Kings/Magi.  Eastern churches focus on Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.

Since New Year’s Eve, I had “Scarlet” by U2 stuck in my head.  My wife and I used some iTunes giftcardage to buy October (Deluxe Edition), basically a double release with every album cut and every album cut live.  I said the other day on Facebook how much I love “Moment of Surrender” from No Line On the Horizon, and how underrated I think that whole album is. (Very. Soooo, even).  Listening to October today, I got really, really moved by “Gloria”.  Moved sounds too emotional for what I really mean.  Excited might be better…excited to be listening to such great art that celebrates the fundamental hope of Advent, Christmas, and the New Year.  It’s so much more like Taize or Bach than like what many of us think about when someone says this or that work is Christian. It’s essentially, classically Christian, but it’s also suprachristian.

I haven’t had much interest in classic liturgy or these seasons until recently, but I’ve been exploring the contemplative, prayer-centered spiritualities of the broader tradition and finding much to celebrate.  It seems to me that the best possible response we might have to the classic and at the same time suprachristian themes of Christmas is celebration, not just for the coming of God into history or God’s theophany, but simply for the thought that God is.  The traditions are becoming, for me, a way of considering at deeper levels who God is.

Gloria…in te domine

Oh Lord, loosen my lips.

(photo: Valerie Everett via Flickr.)

Awe and Richard Rohr

August, 2010

Last night I was listening to Richard Rohr address a group at Soularize 2007.   He was talking about Aquinas and the idea of co-natural knowledge and like seeking like in human experience.  Good people see good in people.  Kind people see kindness. Hateful people see only through the prism of their hate.  So it is with our experience of God: “The divine image in us,” Rohr said, “sees the divine image over there. God in us sees God, God in us loves God.  There’s a part of you that’s always said ‘yes’ to God.”

Karl Barth said that the Holy Spirit is the recipient in us of God’s own self-revelation.  For Barth, God is the author (Father) of God’s self-communication to humanity, and because God only communicates God’s full and true self to us, this communication is also God’s full self (Son/Logos): the content of God’s self-revelation is God.  In Barth’s understanding, the Holy Spirit then is God receiving God’s self-communication (which is also God) in us.

I like both of these related ways of thinking, but there is, of course, something more self-consciously contemplative about Rohr’s application.  For Barth, God’s self-communication seems basically initiated by God the Author, and though I doubt Rohr would disagree, he seems naturally more interested in the ways God encounters God’s own creative works in us.  For Barth, we are receivers, and for Rohr, I think, we are detectors, maybe Geiger counters.

This morning, as I walked my dog in the first cool August morning teasing Pennsylvania with the rituals of fall, I considered what it is about nature that is so awe-inspiring. What is it about any beautiful thing? Perhaps awe is God in us encountering and recognizing God’s own creation in the world?  If so, we are sorts of conduits, not just the hands and feet of God, but in a very real sense also God’s eyes and ears, God’s experiential interface.  You might say we are blessed in this way to be a part of God’s own communication with God’s self.  We are part of God’s ongoing internal conversation.  What else could communion with God mean?  Why seek anything less?

Proxy Christs and Purple Spaghetti

Three items tonight:

1) If Christ lives, why is it that so many Christians treat the Bible as his proxy?  If we have access to the Divine, why this divination?

2) My friend Nathan Key told me a joke long ago called “Purple Spaghetti.”  There are some versions on line, but none of them capture Nate’s sick 6th grade raconteur style.  If you know this joke, I want to see your best attempt at it.  The longer and more drawn-out, the better.

3) Dzanc has a new on-line journal up.  Check out The Collagist. Gordon Lish is in the house.