Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Remembering That I Am Dust

Today is Ash Wednesday. I have ashes on my forehead, placed on me in the sign of the cross but better resembling a grey blob - a grey blob that iches where it's drawn the moisture from my skin. I knelt on a wood floor because the choir loft doesn't have kneeling cushions. I listened to the Rite I language (which our church uses every other year) through all the embellishments of the Elizabethan English to the service elements I thought I knew by heart. Yet I am glad I went to church today.

Our choir director hates Lent. She understands its importance, but she dislikes the dreary music, the special rules (she can't pick any hymns with the word "allelulia" anywhere in them) and the black robes we wear. She's a cheerful person and the dreary season feels unnecessary when it comes around every single year. I, on the other hand, love me some Lenten season. It feeds into my melancholic side, no doubt, with its focus on the tragic, the unworthy, the wrong and imperfect. But truly there is nothing more satisfying than a good requiem, a good minor Russian liturgical piece, a sad movie, a tragic book, a poem that cuts you to the quick. In this Hubster and I are similar. We appreciate life through appreciating the lows as much as the highs, but I know how tough it is to feel happy and find your loved one revelling in a sad song - you feel put upon, unready, frankly, you want to run the other way.

Every year the church experiences Lent. Not all churches usher it in with dust and ashes, although most usher it out with the extra large hymns, range-y descants but of COURSE, and all the pomp they can muster for Easter. I remember the first time my non-denominational church joined a Lutheran parish for the Imposition of the Ashes. We filed past the pastors who dipped his hands in a grey pot and sealed our foreheads with a cross saying over and over "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." I was a happy kid, most of the time, so why was I so fascinated by this reminder? Why was I upset ever after when I wasn't able to receive ashes and hear that litany said?

I'm weird, yes, but not so weird that I can escape that need of humanity to be a part of community. I guess that's why this service is so special to me - it ushers in the downer of Lent by joining us together, with Christ and with each other, for a season of studying the dark side of life. We note where and how we've failed to live up to our calling, we note the pain and suffering the world. We do not dole out platitudes and move on quickly to the allelulias. We sit and contemplate. We trade the silver chalice for the clay one. We shroud the gold crosses with purple cloth and focus on that which we'd like to forget - our mortality, our limitation, our failure. There are few occasions in American society where we are encouraged to focus on those things - we idealize a rather perky society on the whole - but here we all strip away pretense and avoidance and kneel and think and feel.

You don't have to be a Christian to understand that deep need to be honest about the human experience, but I hope we Christians, if not in this season than at least sometime each year, observe life with unflinching eyes and experience a time of renewal in our faith not just through the Easter lilies but through the ashes as well.


Neil said...

hey Erica -

What's your email? I want to email about cool dSLR happenings (a Nikon D80 is in the mail for me right now!)

email me at nocents at gmail dot com


J. Morgan Caler said...

Great post, Erica! I have come to realize how astonishing it is that, in many churches, Easter is celebrated but Lent isn't. I think that is actually a powerful lense into what people think about Christianity. Avoiding or disliking the season that reminds us of our own mortality and darkness in religious practice tells us something important about what we think religion is and is for.

scifigrrl said...

An excellent, thought-provoking post. I hadn't realized before how much Lent *isn't* emphasized in the churches I have attended. Maybe it's my 'Plain People' background or maybe I'm a little odd, but those weeks just before Easter have always been very contemplative and sober for me, regardless of what is being done (or not) at church. It is telling that most people would rather not spend mental energy on the darker issues.

Plankiest said...

Wow. That was a beautiful post.