I have been Baptist my entire life, but I am not now the kind of Baptist I used to be, and I do not attend your average Baptist church. My church's slogan is that it's "a new way of being Baptist." My friends and I have a joke that a new way of being Baptist is pretty much the same old way of being Episcopalian. That's not true, but we do have some practices and elements in our services that are much more (dare I say it?) sacramental in nature than what happens in your average Baptist church.
And thus we observe Ash Wednesday.
To be clear, I'd never in my life been part of a church that marks Ash Wednesday with the imposition of ashes until moving to Austin. My churches since college have observed Lent, but it was always just a Sunday thing.
To be equally clear, our church is quite Baptist. Really, thoroughly Baptist. Baptist in the nothing-happens-quickly-because-two-committees-and-the-deacons-and-the-church-council-have-to-approve-everything-in-three-stage-votes sense of being Baptist. But, as I quickly learned, at our Baptist church, we do Ash Wedneday. And I love it. I really do. We do Lent in an entirely Baptist way, by imposing ashes on one anothers' foreheads, saying, "From dust you have come and to dust you shall return." And then we sing "Amazing Grace" and off into the night we go, to ponder mortality and sacrifice and repentance.
When I say, "we," however, unfortunately that doesn't mean me. Ash Wednesday being perpetually on Wednesday, the service at our church is always at the same time as the regular Wednesday night activities. One of which is the GA's, which I've been helping to teach for the last four years. So instead of getting ashes, I usually spend Ash Wednesday doing a craft that will help us to remember to pray for missionaries who serve the Lakota people of South Dakota, or explaining why most apartments in China don't have air conditioning. I enjoy teaching the GA's, but I really hate missing the Ash Wednesday service. There is something about someone smearing black dust onto your forehead and reminding you that you came from dust and will go back to dust that sets the tone for Lent, that this is a separate, special time of year, to think about sacrifice, and to prepare for Easter's redemption.
And so, somewhere along the way, I developed an annual habit of going to visit the Episcopalians. Episcopalians take Ash Wednesday very seriously, such that they need multiple services throughout the day to ensure that everyone in the parish who so desires has the opportunity to get ashes. Every year, at noon on Ash Wednesday, just for an hour, I join their community for this service, this reminder, this call to live differently.
Going to church with the Episcopalians is a very different experience than what is normal in my new-way-of-being-Baptist church. There's lots of liturgy, lots of kneeling and standing and saying the right words at the right time. And there is so much that is beautiful about saying the same words that Christians have been reciting for centuries. "Most holy and merciful Father, We confess to you...that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone." "Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory." One gets the sense that these words carry believers through good times and bad, through faith and doubt and every shade of grey in between.
I also like the emphasis on history in the Episcopalian celebration of Ash Wednesday. Today we learned that:
"The season of Lent...was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith."
I love that. Lent was a time to restore those who had fallen away back into fellowship. But it wasn't just about forgiving the sinners; it was also a reminder to all of us that we are the same, in need of grace and absolution. Maybe especially for the Episcopal church this year, which is in deep need of reconciliation.
And then there are the ashes, which, if they are prepared according to tradition, come from burning the palm fronds used in the previous Palm Sunday service. Think about that: here is something beautiful that has turned into something that is ugly, dirty, and more-or-less useless. In Goma last year, Congo being in heavily Catholic country, there were green palms everywhere on Palm Sunday. If there's one thing Goma does have readily available, it's an abundance of black dust. Yet those beautiful green palms of celebration have been burned and returned to our skin to remind us of our brokenness.
As I went forward to receive ashes, I have to admit to being more amused by the over-enthusiastic members of the altar guild who were trying to control the crowd with mixed success. When I got to the altar, I don't know what happened. I was probably supposed to close my eyes, but I'm not a good Episcopalian and I don't know all the rules. The priest looked me dead in the eyes, imposed the ashes, and said the same thing he said to everyone else: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. "Purge me from my sin, and I shall be whole. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." Remember that you are human, that you came from nothing, and that one day this broken body will be nothing. Today you will take communion with believers who are so different from you, and yet with whom you have much in common. Today you will remember, today you will repent, today you will commit.
We finished GA's early tonight, so we sent the girls to the playground and I actually made it to the sanctuary in time for the Baptist version of the service. That's never happened before, but I was glad to have the experience of having ashes imposed again, not by a priest, but by a teenager, and to sing "Amazing Grace" and go out into the night with my faith community. It was good to be reminded of who I am, from what I come, and of how much I neither know nor understand about how it all fits together, how God works through our differences. Thanks be to God for miracles and mysteries, and for bringing life out of dust.