There is a strange contradiction written into the Christian Ash Wednesday service. The service begins with Jesus warning us to beware of “practicing our piety before men” – and then we kneel while the priest smears an ENORMOUS black cross on our foreheads. We’re supposed to leave that cross on all day. It makes every person on the subways and streets stare at us. For some reason those ashes are oily – they stick – they smudge. As the day progresses they go from shape of a cross to being just a big black mark.
So is that the very kind of false piety Jesus warns against?
Yes. But as long as we know that, there’s no reason not to do it anyway. Here’s what I mean.
Imposing ashes on our foreheads is a manmade tradition. Therefore it’s inherently suspect. Yes, I know. It’s been around a long time. Since the fourth century, I’m told. But in the very “first” century, Jesus railed against people who imposed manmade rules. He said those people weighed down others with “religious” rules that crushed them, and didn’t lift a finger to help them. Luke 11:46. So the first thing to note is that no one should EVER feel they have to get that ashy cross on their foreheads. Anyone who says otherwise is just plain wrong. And they can be – politely – ignored.
So once we know we’re free of any requirement to get that Ash Wednesday cross, we arrive at a different question. Should we? Could we? To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: do we dare?
The litmus test for whether something is helpful in our quest toward living a life of sacrificial love is to look at the fruit it bears. So here’s my short answer, born of personal experience yesterday. I went to an 8 a.m. service. I got my cross. It was big. It was bold. It wasn’t beautiful. I felt self-conscious. And it wasn’t until I recognized that there was NO WAY false piety hadn’t crept into my heart in that I was free of false piety.
Here’s what I mean.
The moment I wrote in this blog that false piety will ALWAYS creep up on us if we walk around with a black cross on our foreheads – then I forgot all about the cross. The moment I realized that on SOME LEVEL that cross was making me proud, the pride melted away.
It’s kind of how grace works. When we pretend to ourselves that we’re perfect, we become proud. The moment we admit our imperfection, boom. There’s finally room for God to humble us.
The interesting thing was that the moment I forgot about the cross, about 20 people struck up conversations with me because of it. They were talking to me in the Writer’s Room (where, trust me, no one talks). They were pulling homilies out of their knapsacks. They were talking to me on the streets. Two women were chatting with me in Alice’s Tea Cup (yes, with their mismatched china). The doormen were asking about it at the club where I swim. “I should have gone to church,” a lot of them said.
“Oh, I only go because I NEED to go,” I replied.
“Who doesn’t,” they said back.
In other words – the moment that cross came to symbolize my pride, rather than my perfection, it became the very thing the cross is supposed to be: a sign of God’s love for we fallen hopeless hapless lovable humans, who long to connect to each other but are never very sure how. Apparently the key to connecting lies in admitting our pride to ourselves.
Which brings me to the Scripture for the day – it’s the very last chapter of Acts. As usual with the book of Acts, I read it and was at somewhat of a loss. It meanders around between Paul’s shipwrecks to his imprisonment in Rome and his lecturing people for being deaf and blind to God’s love and his availability to anyone who wants to hear of God’s love. What is one to do with all that? How do we summarize it? What’s the takeaway? How do we relate it to Ash Wednesday, a Pope resigning for the first time since the Great Schism, civil war in Syria, school bombings, trade partnership between the U.S. and the EU, civilians being bombed in Afghanistan, Iran’s new centrifuges, and six more people being hauled away for hacking into cellphones in Rupert Murdoch’s empire?
Well, humbly yours, I have no idea. But here’s my takeaway.
When Paul is shipwrecked off the island of Malta, the locals kindle a fire for him in the rain and cold.
There it is. It’s that simple. Kindness is to build a fire for someone who is cold and wet. That’s the kind of kindness we can feel with our eyes shut and our ears stopped. A fire melts away the coldness in us. A fire makes us thankful. We draw close with all the other wet cold people. We stretch out our hands to the warmth.
And that’s exactly how we feel God’s love.
God’s fire burns on every beach. His lighthouses are visible from every shore, every ship and every piece of driftwood. There is no place that His light doesn’t shine. There is no dark so dark that His light can’t reach it. There are no chains He can’t break. There is no beach He won’t walk onto to warm us. His love and forgiveness and acceptance warm us from false piety to grateful humility, where we are reminded that dust we are and unto dust we shall return – except we won’t return to it, because He breathes life into us. Why? Because we put a cross on our foreheads? No – because He bore the real cross, the blackest oiliest cross of all, out of total humility – which is another word for love. That’s why we wear the cross. It’s a sign we belong to Him – in all our humanity, in all our pride, in all our beauty.
posted by Caroline Coleman in a Chapter a Day on Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013… and totally rewritten the day after Ash Wednesday, on Valentine’s Day…