Grace Episcopal Church is very quiet when I enter at 9:20. In fact, even though the service is to start at 9:30, I am the only person in the sanctuary. A few minutes later several more people show, but it turns out the big service will be in the evening. (After the soup supper. Ah! even Episcopalians must be urged with food. But during Lent?)
I had hoped to slip unobtrusively into a pew in the back and be more observer than participant in my first Ash Wednesday service. But the service is being held in the choir loft and altar area, which is still more than ample for the seventeen of us. Here I can't very well observe without participating. In fact, it turns out that I am the second person at the altar rail. I glance at the woman next to me, hoping that she's a lifelong Episcopalian who will know what to do next and how to do it.
This must be the high-church part of the congregation, for there's much genuflecting and crossing of oneself when entering the altar area where communion is celebrated. I'm reminded of the little rhyme about Presbyterians:
Presby, Presby dinna bend
Sit ye doon on man's chief end.
That's Dutch Reformed too. Aunt Gertrude would turn over in her grave if she saw me kneel and cross myself. And I have enough Calvinistic suspicion about "veneration of the elements" that I decide just to forego the crossing and genuflecting; I try to look devout and make a half-bow (which probably looks more Chinese than high church) as I enter the altar area.
Most of the service consists of Scripture reading, either by the priest or responsively by the congregation. The sermon is very short. (I wonder why it is that the less "liturgical" a church is, the longer the sermons are and the shorter the time for Scripture reading.) We reflect briefly on the meaning of "Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return." We are only dust and that is reason for humility. But God used the dust to create us in his image. That is reason for joy and gratitude. And even though we shall return to dust, we shall be raised again. That is reason for hope.
Then the priest prays: "Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior." As we kneel at the altar rail, the priest "imposes" the ashes in the shape of a cross on our foreheads and says, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The ash feels slightly oily. The people next to me cross themselves (again).
We return to our pews and, while kneeling, we read Psalm 51 together: "I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me… Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure… The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." Never have I felt Psalm 51 as during this reading.
The priest then leads us in confession: "We have not loved you with our whole heart" and a confession of more specific sins, while we pray, "Have mercy on us, Lord." The time of prayer ends with a comforting pronouncement that the Lord "pardons and absolves all those who truly repent and with sincere hearts believe his holy gospel."
The transition to the Eucharist is signaled by the priest pronouncing, "The peace of the Lord be always with you." We say the same to all those around us. Then some shake hands, some hug; the couple in front of me kiss on the lips after they proclaim the peace of the Lord to each other.
The bread of communion is a saltless, wholesome, dark brown bread—nourishing. The wine tastes tangy. I still like wine better at communion than the flat grape juice we now use at our church. The sharp bitterness of the wine and its association with celebration capture better the mixture of sadness and joy of the Supper.
The closing prayer sends us on our way: "Look with compassion, O Lord, upon this your people; that rightly observing this holy season, they may learn to know you more fully, and to serve you with a more perfect will; through Christ our Lord."
I've been deeply moved by the service. The intimacy of the small group, the careful ritual that makes me feel and see the mystery of grace, being nourished by the Supper on a Wednesday morning, spending most of the worship time on my knees, listening to and reading (long) compelling passages of Scripture—all these combine to give me a new awareness of Christ and his suffering, of Christ and his love.
I'm a bit disappointed that the others seem not as impressed as I am. Perhaps if I had attended ten or sixty Ash Wednesday services, this one wouldn't have made as great an impression. One lady is grousing about her six days of rain in Florida. The man who smelled so like smoke, casually lights up a cigarette.
When I get home, I go to the mirror and study the ash cross on my forehead. There's more room there now than twenty years ago. That means I'm twenty years closer to turning to dust. A sobering thought. But the ash is in the form of a cross. That's a comforting sight.
Before I leave the house, I take a washcloth to the ashes. I have to take my car in, and the mechanic is Christian Reformed. He might not understand. ("Harry, I think you got some shoe polish or something on your forehead.")
But I think that I'm going to go back next year for my second Ash Wednesday service.
In a Word
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. The early church determined that the Lenten period of fasting and renewal should correspond to Christ's fasting (Matt. 4:2), and by counting forty days back from Easter (excluding Sundays, which remain "feast" days), arrived at the Wednesday seven weeks before Easter.
At one time Lent was primarily viewed as a period during which converts prepared for baptism on Easter Sunday, but later the season became a general time of penitence and renewal for all Christians. And Ash Wednesday became the day that marked the beginning of the Lenten renewal.
Ashes have a long history in biblical and church traditions. In Scripture ashes (dust) symbolize frailty or death (Gen. 18:27), sadness or mourning (Esther 4:3), judgment (Lam. 3:16) and repentance (Jon. 3:6). Some traditions also have considered ash a purifying or cleansing agent.
All these images are caught up in the church's use of ashes as a symbol appropriate for Lent. In Christ's passion we see God's judgment on evil; in our penitence we express sorrow and repentance for our sins; in our re-dedication we show that we are purified and renewed.
The ash used in Ash Wednesday worship services is usually the ashes from the palm leaves of the previous year's Palm Sunday celebration. Mixed with water or oil, the ash is carried in a small dish; as the minister goes from person to person, he dips his thumb in the ash and makes a cross on each forehead ("imposition"). And to each person he says, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."
The cleansing motif of ashes is reiterated in the psalm reading that follows: "Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin" (Ps. 51:2). And the ultimate outcome for the penitent child of God is reflected in the closing prayer: "… that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy…" (Book of Common Prayer).