Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Kids Say the Darndest Things

As a child I was upset by the concept of Ash Wednesday. My mother reminds me often of one particular year when I returned to the pew with my face wrinkled in an indignant pout. When she asked me what was wrong, I said, "Mom, that man said I was dust. I'm not dust!" A critic of Christian ritual from the get go. At the time, humble penitence and mortality were beyond my grasp - and I suppose even today the notion that I might be no more than dust is a little bit of a strike to my secular capitalistic sensibilities. Still, Lent is the season that draws me back to the church no matter how far I may stray for the remainder of the year.

Perusing websites, I find a lot of assertions from the church that Ash Wednesday is a somber day of reflection on what needs to change in one's life in order to become fully Christian.

Become fully Christian.

Well that all depends, doesn't it? On church politics, budgets, interpretations of texts that are interpretations themselves. In certain respects, Ash Wednesday would seem to be, at its core, a criticism of the church itself: "So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you," etc. The irony is sometimes too much to bear in addition to the weight of political religious baggage that my family has carried for more than one generation. Becoming fully Christian has parameters. Rules. God granted free will in order to be able to make examples of the wicked? To make sure heaven doesn't ever reach capacity? To give people who go to church the right to judge or "correct" those who don't? To inspire an aching, everlasting sense of guilt for every "wrong"? Wrong to whom?

In the dark stillness of the sanctuary amid familiar smells of incense and brass polish, it's possible to let some of that go. To let the words wash over me. To retreat into myself. To explore my innermost demons, as it were. To let go. To remember what it is to make a mistake. To acknowledge and free them. To acquiesce my incompleteness, my sense of lack, and become one with it - whole with holes. To give up the battle for a few minutes and be at peace. It's in the peace that the tears flow freely - in gratitude, in joy, in sadness - if only for a few moments, not in frustration but in pure emotion.

Maybe I'm called back out of a sense of familiarity, tradition. Beginning with ashes, journeying through darkness, and emerging in light, love and celebration - who doesn't love a happy ending?

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