Byron L. Rohrig is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Bloomington, Indiana.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 25, 1987, p. 180. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
I am nervous and uncomfortable on Ash Wednesday because I must confess publicly that I am a sinner; not only that, but I must stand within the faith community and witness while others confess the same.
Ash Wednesday is not known in the church as our good humor day. So I was at first puzzled when I reached into my file, untouched since the first day of Lent last year, and found that I had scribbled the following: "On Ash Wednesday, the minister who just had to be different slung a shovelful of palm ash at his horrified congregation. One parishioner was heard to remark in a whispered gasp, ‘This is a terrible imposition."’
What on earth could have evoked such a thought on my part? As I pondered that question, along with my recollections of past Ash Wednesdays, there came to mind an ill-fated communion service which I once led at a confirmation retreat. I was outraged at the irreverent giggling of these junior high-aged youth, unfazed by my stern looks from behind the table. I was even more angry at myself for having attempted such a service. Later I recounted the debacle to my wife, who is a secondary-level English teacher by training. She wasn’t surprised. "They were nervous, uncomfortable," she said.
She continued: "These are seventh- and eighth-graders, right? I’ll bet that if you check, you’ll find out that for most of them your service was the first time they’d ever received communion. The communion liturgy throws a lot of heavy things their way all at once: sacrifice, body, blood, resurrection. They were nervous, uncomfortable. And how do they deal with that? By trying to find something funny in it." I checked out her hunch about the group’s lack of prior experience with communion. She was right. I’m sure she was right about the reason for the giggling, too.
And so now I know how to account for my feeble attempt at Ash Wednesday humor: I was nervous and uncomfortable. This is the ninth successive year that I will be involved in an Ash Wednesday service with my congregation. On the past eight Shrove Tuesdays I have wished that I could weasel out of it somehow. Will it be different this year? I doubt it.
I am convinced that the rest of the church feels much the same. Last year when I visited the Episcopal rector down the street and asked to borrow a cup of ash, I explained that First Church had never used the stuff before and that I was a bit apprehensive about how the imposition of ashes would be received, even if performed in the traditional way. I muttered something about how skeptical some United Methodists are anyway about rites and rituals and special days. He responded by telling me that his church had been observing Ash Wednesday for a long time, and the service has in fact grown.
But there is no getting around the fact that Ash Wednesday is the most uncomfortable day of the church year.
Fixed in my memory is the year I was startled almost speechless when suddenly I found myself drawing an ashen cross on the forehead of our daughter, who was then barely three years old. I choked on the words, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." Never had my mortality been quite so real to me. Ash Wednesday causes us distress because it rubs our faces in our mortality, or vice versa. Death and sin, sin and death. The real issue is not the death that is part of the biological process, but the death we bring on ourselves because we forget that we were created in God’s image.
Ash Wednesday also forces us to view our capabilities realistically. Left to ourselves, we can no more give up our self-will and our pretending to self-sufficiency than we can avoid death. There are countless moments in my life when I have sucked on the fruit of the forbidden tree, demanded sovereignty where it is God’s prerogative to rule, refused to be who and whose I was created to be, cherished things more than relationships, and failed to love as I have been loved. In all such moments death has already cast its shadow over me and over those whom I have wronged. Ash Wednesday confronts us with our gross inadequacy when left to our own devices and calls us to the discipline of repentance.
Ash Wednesday is no doubt further uncomfortable because the act that is central to it -- repentance -- is usually perceived as a most disquieting proposition. It is easy to overlook the fact that the point of the act, as well as of this day of fasting, is to make us uncomfortable with our sin, not with God. To repent has nothing to do with self-flagellation or with bleeding ourselves of our self-esteem. It simply means to turn around, to turn our backs on death.
In the liturgy for the imposition of the ashes, the words alternate between the so-called "fall" story in Genesis and Mark’s summary of Jesus’ central theme for preaching: "[Remember] you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3:19), and "Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). When intoned on Ash Wednesday, the sound of these passages is somber, as if made to fall from pursed lips upon faces pained and drawn. Not for a moment would I attempt to banish all the discomfort: "Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins . ." But this stark, penitential day, the first of the 40 days of Lent, is ultimately uncomfortable only if we neglect to place it within the whole of our faith, the whole of the gospel.
A review of the creeds is in order as Lent begins, for in them we declare our faith not in sin but in its forgiveness. We might rediscover that the words of imposition are rea1ly words that call for a response of rejoicing, for they are gracious words. Surely their use was initiated by those not oblivious of their scriptural context. In reading all of Genesis 3 we are reminded that death is the penalty prescribed for seizing from the tree that which is God’s alone. There is no denying that a price must be paid, but the called-for penalty is not exacted. Those whose audacity earns for them only the awareness of their nakedness are given the gift of clothing, and subsequent chapters of Genesis make it clear that the God who drove them out of the garden did not himself tarry there, but followed them out. "This," writes Walter Brueggemann, "is not a simple story of human disobedience and divine displeasure. It is rather the story about the struggle God has in responding to the facts of human life. When the facts warrant death, God insists on life for his creatures" (Genesis, John Knox, 1982). And says Mark: "Repent and believe in the gospel [good news ]." That last word deserves emphasis, too, particularly because it is the last word in the sentence universally seen as the Markan agenda for Jesus’ ministry: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15)
All this time, and not only is God still "responding to the facts of human life," but doing so with unprecedented intensity and resolve in the person of him who cures disease and puts demons to flight and heals the breach between humanity and God: even "Jesus Christ, Son of God" (Mark 1:1)
All we are called to do is to be who we are created to be. We need only be human, a simple matter of being in relationship with God and other human beings. Further, the story that calls us together and forms us is one of a God who is in relentless pursuit of us and of the divine dream that those relationships might grow and thrive and that we might indeed have life. Up to a point Ash Wednesday is supposed to make us uncomfortable, as we contemplate our sinful condition. However, it need be ultimately uncomfortable only inasmuch as we insist on cherishing death and refusing to acknowledge our continuing life in God.