ash wednesday surprise
i remember my first ash wednesday service, about 5 months after i had become an episcopalian. it was so early in the morning, and over utica, ny, the cold, grey sky seemed to fit will the stark reality: "you are but dust, and to dust you shall return."
the evangelical-protestant congregations in which i had learned the faith, and in which i had served, had never offered anything like this. jeanne and i were so deeply moved.
although not a morning person myself, and greatly prefering evening worship to morning worship, that first early morning ash wednesday service had felt so right. somehow it seemed to have been meant for early morning. i don't have a compelling reason or argument for thinking this... it may be nothing more than the fact that my first encounter with ash wednesday just happened to be in the early morning. but it had felt so right to me. moreover, to catch a surprised glimpse of my smudged forehead in the reflection in a window, mirror, or shiny object as i wandered through the day, kept driving home the reality of that liturgical and prophetical call: "you are but dust, and to dust you shall return."
by the time i prepared for bed that evening, I had been reminded so many times, that one could say I had been haunted by the service all day long.
fast forward to my first ash wednesday as a parish priest.
until now i had paid no attention to the other ash wednesday services offered to the congregations with whom i'd worshipped. but now, assisting the rector in my first post following my episcopal ordination, i was surprised at how most of the parish came to the evening service rather than the early morning service. honestly, for some reason, that reality had never occurred to me. but i had an almost visceral reaction in my disappointment that most of the parish had missed so much of ash wednesday by coming so late in the day. so the idealistic/romantic part of me longed for the congregation to gather with me early in the morning, and experience the day-long reminder of our dustness.
on the other hand, i acknowledge the practical difficulty, in our commuting, retail-centered world, for people to gather in the early morning. it just wasn't realistic to expect anything else.
yet on still another "other hand," the abstract/theological/liturgical part of me longed for all the symbols to connect: "the liturgical fact is this," pontificated that part of me to the rest of me, "in liturgical time, from sunset to sunset, the day was lost. we passed at sunset into the eve of the NEXT time, thursday, before they had gathered." (never wish to be an INTP... it's a terrible thing!)
fast forward again, to this year.
the customary shrove tuesday pancake supper had hit the wall. although many looked forward to attending, those who had taken responsibility for making it happen were few and far between. some had died, some had moved away, those who had continued taking responsibility for the custom were longing to escape responsibility, and none had arisen to say, like caleb, "let me take that mountain." my response was, "so? who said we needed a pancake supper? why not do something more fun? let's have a pot-luck mardi gras party." and so we did.
and it was so much fun.
way more fun than turning ourselves into a high-maintenance restaurant for one evening and shuffling pancakes for hundreds of people who came to the parish hall once a year for pancakes and sausage, but never came for worship.
it's not like we were actually ministering to the community in any discernible way. the poor weren't fed, nor the homeless sheltered, nor was any good news proclaimed, nor was the mysterious, powerful, ineffable, saving God made known. people weren't so won over by our winsome pancake supper that they felt compelled to visit us for worship on sundays following. and as a fund raiser? well, it did turn a profit, for sure. but frankly, it is far easier to tithe than to support the ministry by pancake suppers.
but the mardi gras party was so much fun. the parish gathered and talked and laughed and wore silly masks and brought incredible food. king cakes and red beans and rice and jambalaya and honey baked ham and decadent desserts and...
and then after we had gathered and partied and become community, we gathered in the nave for the ash wednesday service.
since it was our parish custom to offer the ash wednesday service at 7:30 am and noon and (after ash wednesday was technically over) at 7:30 pm, i didn't know whether anybody would show up for the post-party service on tuesday evening, ash wednesday eve. and if they did show up, i wasn't entirely sure that it would work. after all, that's quite a shift in one evening, from mardis gras silliness to the beginning of the lenten fast.
wednesday's ash wednesday services went on as usual: a few at 7:30 am, a few at noon, and a crowd at 7:30 pm. the choir was wonderful, as usual. no surprises. we gathered largely as individuals, reflecting on our individual guilt, our individual mortality, our individual need for salvation.
but the ash wednesday eve service (tuesday night) was completely surprising. the first surprise was this: we had the same number on tuesday night as on wednesday night. different people, but the same number. the second surprise was this: children. our ash wednesday services have been adult affairs with hardly any children at all. but the post-party ash wednesday eve service (tuesday night)had lots of children and some teens. completely unexpected. the third surprise was this: after having become community through the pot-luck party/dinner, through the sharing of food and laughter, face to face over table, it was a community that moved, as a community, from the parish hall into the nave, and as a community worshipped together. i noticed the difference immediately, as did others who mentioned it to me the next day. that we felt like a community on ash wednesday eve, that we were experiencing the truth that we are all in this together, was an unexpected blessing, a gracious surprise.
the evening experience was very powerful... so powerful that the normal early morning ash wednesday service seemed rather barren to me, by comparison. not that it was less than it had always been. it wasn't. it was a meaningful as it always is. but by comparison to the preceding evening, i was enormously struck at how much more powerful the evening had been by comparison.
remembering back, i realize that this has been the case on other occasions. it is one thing to have a dinner of some sort following sunday worship. but it is quite another thing to have worship following a dinner. both involved worship and both involve community. but making community before coming together for worship gives a whole new dimension to worship. it is truly corporate worship when the body of Christ gathers as the body of Christ rather than as so many individuals. and i now realize that the early church experienced something that we seldom do, as they gathered on saturday evening (remember: in "liturgical time," as in jewish time, sunday begins at sundown saturday night, not at sunrise). the early church gathered together saturday evening, had a meal together, and as a community then entered into corporate worship. we don't do that. and we're missing something very powerful.
i have always appreciated some asian congregations i've encountered that can't imagine holding sunday morning worship without following with a community meal. now i have begun to wonder who's idea it was that our congregations would gather on sunday mornings without a community meal at all. i have a suspicion it wasn't God's idea.
i don't know how whether i can ever pull it off... but someday i hope i can experience a weekly saturday evening community meal, followed by our eucharistic worship service, as my principle experience of weekly, corporate worship.
the lord be with you.