It was my first time. Unexpected and not long in the planning. I had thought about it for a few days, but it wasn’t until that day after work at the dinner table. “Wanna go tonight?” I asked. “I suppose,” she replied, “what time should we leave?” For fifty-five years I had never been to an Ash Wednesday service.
I grew up in a rural area surrounded by families that all, except us, went to the only Catholic Church in the township, and most of the kids in those families went to the parish school through eighth grade. They were all second or third generation German immigrant families, Klein, Brown, Rasch, Robach, Umlor, Dietrich. We were the only Protestant family, a Dutch, German and Irish hybrid, on our mile section, perhaps as well on any of the surrounding mile sections. Much of the time we managed to get along well. We lived ten miles from any village. If we kids wanted to play a game that required more than four players (every family had at least four kids), we had to join up. For baseball we could often get five players on a side, the batting team supplied the catcher, and right field was an automatic out. But there were many times we did not get along, we fought, called each other awful names, were threatened with gross harm if we trespassed on their property. We didn’t own enough property to trespass upon.
When I got to ninth grade in high school, a group of the ninth and tenth grade boys who had gone through eighth grade at the parish school pestered me: would try to trip me as I walked down a hall, knock my books and notebooks out of my hand, call me names, and angle to draw me into a schoolyard fight. Early in the fall of my ninth grade year, my mom sensed that I was distressed about school and asked me to explain. Upon explanation, she said “you need to take one on. Next time they pester you in a place where others can watch and where teachers are near enough to break it up, go after one of the ring leaders and win the fight.” This was shocking for me to hear, having been brought up to believe that one should always turn the other cheek, having seen this precisely in various Jesus films where, some years later, I wondered if Jesus was on codeine or smack. Jesus in those films had an airy voice, flowed as he walked, said blissfully things like “consider the lilies of the field” and “peace, be still.” My mom said to take one on and win the fight.
So I did. A teacher intervened, we got hauled to the principal’s office and parents were called in. When my mom arrived and was told what happened, she told the principal what she had heard from me, and what she told me to do. The principal stuttered a bit, said “okay, but I’ll have to give him one day after-school detention.” A pretty good deal, I thought, and three and a half years later thought it a great deal for it worked. It was my only high school fight. Win, win fast and hard, and others will know that if they want to take you on they might win but it will be a win that will leave a few painful marks on them.
I am sure that is not why I had never been to an Ash Wednesday service before. I can’t just look down my nose at my Catholic neighbors for anti-Protestant sentiment. I was raised in a Protestant church that had at least as strong anti-Catholic sentiment, equating the antichrist of the Apocalypse with the Pope. When we read of Jesus saying judgmental things about priests, rabbis, and Pharisees, we pictured them in robes like priests and acolytes wore in the Catholic church. Perhaps even our Sunday school materials dressed them to look like Roman Catholic priests.
I grew out of that anti-Catholic sentiment immediately after high school, becoming much more generous in my orthodoxy over the intervening years. Maybe most religions exhibit a kind of theoretical or doctrinal cannibalism or genocide. We just can’t much tolerate those who are close to us but a little bit different. That difference is like the small grease stain on your carpet that you notice, but none of your guests ever notice, and to you it is as noticeable as a big wart on a chin. My orthodoxy has gotten too generous for some, but mostly they tolerate me.
I think it has more to do with my inclinations toward liturgy. I am low church. Very low. Low church can be a bit goofy. If you allow for a little spontaneity, if everything doesn’t have to follow a schedule, you open yourself up for the person who wants to share more detail about their life and God’s goodness to them than you are comfortable hearing. Sometimes hearing their stories is like coming upon lovers kissing in public. Some may find that sappy and cute, but some just want to say “don’t you have a private place for that?” However, in low church with eyes wide open you can see people genuinely in love with a God who walks with them through the valley of the shadow of death, who has ate with them in green pastures, has slaked their thirst with calm waters, and surely whose goodness and mercy is chasing after them all the days of their lives. When you see that, you have to be awfully Stoic to not be deeply affected.
I am not much for ritual, order, pomp, liturgy. Simply saying the Lord’s Prayer in unison feels awkward. At least it used to. Even with that I have gotten beyond that feeling to where now, reciting it in unison, it is hard for me to get through without being overwhelmed with how far I am from hallowedness. This past Sunday I was asked to be one of the servers for Holy Communion. As I stood there with watery eyes dispensing the symbols of Christ’s body and blood, I could barely choke out “Christ’s body and blood, given for you.” I don’t understand how I had any right to be the dispenser.
But I did it. I went to an Ash Wednesday service. Wait! There is more! I even went forward for the imposition of ashes. What a phrase! An imposition. In the sign of a cross. My wife and I hadn’t discussed it, hadn’t mentioned a word of it. But when the invitation was made to come forward I looked at her, got up, and she followed me. As he marked me, he instructed me “you are dust, repent and believe the Gospel.” I heard it as “you were dirt that was made alive, now live the Gospel.” I felt the gravity of it all.
And then the homily was titled “Wearing your halo too tight.” It was about making a show of your pious acts: praying ostentatiously in public, making a public display of your charitable giving, fasting and letting others know you are fasting. And I wondered if, when I left the service and on the way home stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few items, I should leave the ashen cross on my forehead, or erase it. Should I make a public declaration that I participated in a Christian community? Or would I be making a public display of my piety?
With the communion service that was part of the Ash Wednesday service, individuals could be anointed with oil for healing. Most accepted it. I again was one of the servers of communion (the lone station with the “gluten-free” option, seeing how I go to a contemporary and hip church). The congregation faces east, with a stained-glass rose window that on Sunday mornings shines bright with the morning sun. I was serving the gluten free option at the south end in front of the congregation. Next to me was a woman anointing with the oil. As she’d apply the oil, she’d have just a short few words for the person, a phrase I didn’t fully hear. At the far north end was an eighty-two year old man doing the oil anointing for that aisle of people. The north wing of the church seats about one-third as many people as either of the center sections seat. When all the rest of us were done serving communion and anointing with oil, he was still down there with four people still in line from the piano-side section: a white-haired woman, a pre-teen boy, an almost forty year-old couple . As each person stepped forward, he conversed briefly with them, anointed them with oil and proceeded to pray for each of them for seventy-five seconds. We, the rest of the congregation, sat in silence for over five minutes while he completed his duties. It was difficult to watch, like it was too private to be made so public. I focused my gaze on my hands. Then, he finished and walked back to his seat.
I had witnessed mystery. Next year, I thought, that is the line I want to be in.
As we got in the car to head to the grocer, we both wiped the ashen cross off our foreheads.