Monday, January 28, 2008

About Ash Wednesday - for Dixie

... and anyone else who cares to come into a discussion half-way through.

Our LCMS blogfriend, Emily, posted the other day on an ash-less Ash Wednesday. Both Dixie and I commented and I realized in the midst of my second comment to this post that I was hogging up Emily's combox, so I'll give you my comments here, Dixie!

Dixie: I could be wrong but I always got the impression the ELCA kept the liturgical traditions a bit more than the LCMS (i.e. looked more Roman Catholic!!! :P )--so it doesn't surprise me that you grew up with ashes. Do you miss it now? I did my first year but after experiencing Orthodox Holy Week its hard to feel like I am missing out--although it remains a practice in the Orthodox Western Rite.

Isn't that funny? As a former-ELCA Lutheran who came from the more pietistic Scandinavian ALC background, it always seemed to me that it was the former LCMS congregations of the ELCA which have done the best job of maintaining the integrity of the Lutheran liturgy! I often wonder if there would be any sort of a confessional Lutheran ELCA presence around here at all if it were not for those former LCMS parishes!

With regard to ashes on Ash Wednesday, I grew up in a pretty low-church ALC mission setting. It was a tiny parish without much money (still is!), but we always had the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday, I think. Same with the church I attended during college, and the Lutheran congregations I have been part of as an adult. Ash Wednesday without ashes would have been like Palm Sunday without the palms! It's just what is done. I had never heard of parishes that held Ash Wednesday services and didn't do ashes. Maybe it's a regional thing or something.

Do I miss it?

I don't think so. I was a VERY new Orthodox Christian on Ash Wednesday last year and really didn't give it much thought, even though I work at a Lutheran parish which has an Ash Wednesday noon Eucharist (a service held while I was at work). I was a little dizzy with church things on the brain just then, so I think I did not miss it. I don't remember missing it.

Will I miss it now, a year later?

I don't think so. I always had a little trouble truly understanding some of the traditions surrounding western Ash Wednesday, even when I was a participant in them. (May God bless at least a couple of my very patient former pastors, who tried very hard to help me understand them better!).

On a very basic level, it always bothered me a little to walk around after that service with the image of a cross smudged onto my forehead, certainly not because I was ashamed of the cross, I wasn't at all. It was just the notion that it announced to the world in a very visible way that I had been to church that day. It felt somehow boastful and a little self-righteous. So the world can plainly see that I went to church that day - big deal. I should worship everyday, but should I wear a cross of ashes on my forehead so that everyone else knows it?

"Remember you are dust," the pastor said as he smeared the image of the cross onto my forehead, "and to dust you shall return." Well, true enough, I suppose. But, at least for the time being, I am more than dust, created in the image of God himself for relationship with him. I never had any problem with the notion of returning to dust - I know many who are returning to dust at this very moment. But the idea that I am dust now? I'm not so sure. God formed the first human from the dust of the earth for a reason - not just to be a breathing dustball. We were created for much more than this.

Also, the notion of confessing my sins on Ash Wednesday and then waiting until Maundy Thursday to receive absolution never sat all that well with me either. I understand the thought and emotional drive behind it, but for me it was not all that practical. "If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" they said ... but not until Holy Week? Something always felt not-quite-right about confessing those sins, and then waiting for nearly 40 days days for forgiveness.

(And don't even get me started about Shrove Tuesday. This is a tradition I did not know about as a child and only learned about as an adult. I have always been very uncomfortable with just about all aspects of the "Fat Tuesday" thing. One year I went, albeit suspiciously, to my former fellowship's Shrove Tuesday party and I was enormously uneasy the whole time. They certainly did it up right, I guess, but I felt the whole time like it was the last place I belonged. When we left, one of our boys just said, "That was really weird." How right he was!).

All this is not to say that these traditions are not valid (they may be or may not be), it is simply to state that some of these beginning-of-Lent western traditions never really made good sense to me all those years - but when I was a Lutheran Christian I tried to respond in faith anyway, doing what the church does whether it made sense to me or not. And in this way, little has changed now that I am an Orthodox Christian. I still do my best to respond in faith to what the Church and tradition teaches, doing what the church does whether or not I "get it."

It's just that there seems to be less that doesn't make good sense to me now.


DebD said...

Very interesting thoughts. I wasn't Lutheran long enough to get used to Ash Wednesday but I do remember almost the exact same feelings when walking around with ashes on my forehead.

I didn't know about Shrove Tues. until I was an adult either. And when I look at attitude of preparation between Fat Tues. and Forgiveness Sunday there's just NO comparison, IMHO.

-C said...

You've hit the nail on the head, here, Deb.

Dwight P. said...

I grew up in a Lutheran enclave where only Roman Catholics were "ashed" on Ash Wednesday. (We also only celebrated -- and I use the word loosely -- four times a year in a special evening service with the lights at half-lumen and the pastor vested only in cassock. So you can see that I was bound to be a little on the liturgically weird side.) I still run hot-and-cold on the "tradition." In the West, however, to have an "Ash" Wednesday to begin Lent without ashes seems a mite strange.

You hit a nerve with one observation, however, and that's on the withholding of an unconditional absolution. In general terms, the invitation to confess sins carries with it (and more than as an implication) the assurance, the promise of forgiveness. (There are situations in which the contents or manner of the confession may raise doubts about that, but I'm speaking in terms of the majority of situations.) So when the Lutheran Church offers this half-assed promise of the absolution to come, I go berserk. I liken it to my assurances to my daughter that she can tell me anything and that if she does, I may not be pleased, I may impose a "consequence," but I will not love her the less or treat her harshly. Then she comes with some upsetting news and I stiffen, turn my back on her, and tell her that "we'll finish this later." It's bad theology, so it must be bad liturgy (whether in churchly or home settings).

So stay uncomfortable with the phenomenon!


Mimi said...

I have no issues with Ash Wednesday, it makes sense to me, but then I have a Catholic background.

But, I do eat a lot on Cheesefare Sunday, I have to admit. Shrove Tuesday definitely makes sense to me. Yum, Blinis!

-C said...

It's not about issues, per se. It is just about a few things that never made good sense to me, that' all.

And my confusion about Shrove Tuesday has little or nothing to do with food. The food thing I can see - it's all of the other behaviors which make no sense, at least to me.

Dixie said...

I understand the concern about parading around with ashes. I never could decide if I was being prideful for displaying that I went to church or embarrassed for walking around with a huge black smudge on my forehead. I think the latter outweighed the former for me.

The withholding of absolution starting Ash Wednesday is unfamiliar to me. The only withholding of absolution I was aware of was from Good Friday to Easter morning...but the congregations I belonged to were not so traditional. For all I know the Good Friday hold out was just the quirk of one pastor. As to Shrove Tuesday...or Fat Tuesday...again, unfamiliar to me. In part, I think, because no Lutherans I knew ever fasted so the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday was just another day. I think things are changing these days though and more and more Lutherans are fasting.

As I mentioned on Emily's blog...I don't really miss Ash Wednesday. The Eastern Rite offers more than enough on it's own. And I find that a little surprising...I tend to normally like to wax nostalgic.

Emily H. said...

The LCMS does not withhold absolution - that is an ELCA practice. I had never heard of it before either.

-C said...

If the LCMS does not withold absolution until Maundy Thursday, I am glad to hear it and it wouldn't surprise me.

Yes, the ELCA does (at least those ELCA parishes which do not play fast and loose with their traditions). It's not that I have never heard about it - of course, I have. It's just one of those traditions which never made any sense to me.
That's all.