Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My First Ash Wednesday Service

"Is Lent Biblical?"  The question came from a college student's mouth.  My mouth.  Never mind the fact I had spent three years in Christian school, I seriously didn't know anything about Lent.  In my previous churches, it has been written of as a "Catholic thing", and as we all were taught Catholics were idolaters, because they worshiped Mary and the saints.  (I later learned this not to be true as I started studying more about their ways of worship)

My pastor looked at me when I voiced my inquiry about Lent, his mouth literally dropping open, and I think he lost some more hair.   (I had one pastor who when we asked something that floored him, I always felt he lost hair, another one I always thought I could see hair turn gray.  Pastors can take it hard when you ask a question about something they hold dear when it shows your ignorance on the subject.)

After learning that Lent was, indeed, Biblical, that's all I took away from the conversation.  After all, I grew up learning it was a "Catholic thing".  Just like the Madonna and Child stamps issued at Christmastime.  They look "too Catholic" to be mailed on Protestant greeting cards, but I just rolled my eyes.  After all,  I just saw a postage stamp as something to get my letter from point A to point B and I have even bought Eid stamps (which, contrary to urban legend is NOT the Muslim Christmas, but it a Muslim holiday totally different from Christmas.)

In fact, I have been more aware or Ramadan and Eid than I have Lent and Ash Wednesday.  After two years at a Christian college, I transferred to a large state university.  The boy who was in the dorm room next time mine was Muslim, and during Ramadan, we made a point of waiting until sundown to eat dinner so he could join us.  In appreciation to his conservative Christian friends, he brought back a spread of food from his family's Eid meal and invited all of us who ate dinner with him to try each of these exotic dishes.  So I knew more about Eid than I did Ash Wednesday.

I first was exposed to a small bit of Catholicism in college when my Christian club rented a Catholic retreat center for a weekend.  I walked around the chapel, looking at the plaques signifying the Stations of the Cross.  The chapel was sparse, but I still wondered what was so wrong with Catholics, after all, I just realized that the Stations of the Cross were Biblical, not to mention my favorite Christian artist said (and I paraphrase) "What if it's not a case of Catholics honoring Mary too much, but of Protestants honoring Mary too little?"  (paraphrased from something I heard Rich Mullins say on a video I watched years ago and can no longer remember the name.)  Mary statues come out at Protestant Churches in December and are quietly tucked away until the next year.  Yes, statues.  Can we not admit that the plastic light up nativity we erect on the front lawn during Christmas is a statue?  Because it is.

I started studying Catholicism more about 2001, and in the days following 9/11, I held a rosary (where I got it I don't know), and prayed a prayer for peace I found on a Catholic website.  If anyone from my Pentecostal Church I was attending at the time knew what I was doing, I probably would have been shunned (which I later felt I was for different reasons.) 

I had the privilege to actually walk the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem.   Some were difficult to find as some just had a small marker with a Roman Numeral in it.  As my friends and I tried to find each plaque commemorating the suffering of Jesus,  we didn't see it as a solemn occasion.  We stopped to buy a soda from a street vendor.  We couldn't find the Church or the Holy Sepulcher.  As the number of Nuns increased, we knew were were closer.  Approaching one is a baby blue habit, I said, "Excuse me, Sister," and we were pointed in the right direction.  I've knelt at Jesus's grave both in Protestant and Catholic tradition. (Protestants commemorate Jesus's burial at the Garden Tomb, while Catholics believe the site to be inside what is now a church.)  I've been to the Church of the Nativity.  I love the beauty of the Catholic Church buildings.  When I visited Russia a few years back I was in more churches than any tourist attraction.  In 2009 I visited my first service, a Byzantine one which I felt the beauty and the simplicity of worship were so inviting.

 The 5th Station of the Cross in Jerusalem.  Where Jesus let Simon of Cyrene carry His cross.  You can read a devotional for the station by clicking here.

Last week when a friend invited me to an Ash Wednesday service, I decided I could go with her and still make the ash-less service at the Pentecostal Church I've been attending off and on the last three years.  I told my friend's son I'd never been to a Roman Catholic service before and I'd need his help in what to do.  As we entered the church he whispered to me, "Don't forget the holy water."   I smiled at him, and wondered WHAT do I do?  I watched this child, and followed his actions, sort of, I only made one sign of the cross, not three.  An e-mail to my friend later cleared up what Holy Water is, and why it is used.  I like the idea.  Remembering.  Isn't that what faith is to be based on?  We remember those who have gone before us, and we remember our journey?

I was slightly confused (but not as much as the time I visited an Orthodox Jewish service all in Hebrew.)  I followed the best I could, and joined the others to receive ashes.  As the lady smudged them on my forehead, she said "Repent" -- a word I rarely hear in church unless there is a hellfire and brimstone sermon.  I watched as others received the Eucharist, and I left feeling like I had been in church.  The music was beautiful, the Scriptures were relevant to the sermon, not the sermon making Scripture "relevant", sometimes pulling Scripture out of context to prove a point.

I half considered washing the ashes off before I attended the Pentecostal service.  But my bangs fell over them, and I also wanted to see if anyone said anything to me about having been to an Ash Wednesday service.  I know people I had enountered in my past would have mentioned it and said I shouldn't have gone.  To their credit, no one mentioned it to me.  Just as it should be.

Some people have grown up in a tradition where Ash Wednesday is observed.  I have not.  I don't know I'll ever go to another Ash Wednesday service, but it was a worship service I greatly enjoyed the remembrance and the emphasis on the the time leading up to Easter being solemn.  I may not be Catholic, and may never be one, but I loved seeing how Ash Wednesday is observed as this Christian tradition was quite foreign to me.

1 comment:

  1. This was very similar to my experiences. I love Ash Wednesday, partly for the reasons you talked about here. And you're so right about the Madonna stamps. When I was doing Christmas cards this year I was very careful about which stamps went on which envelope, which is kind of embarrassing to admit.