catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 14 :: 2010.07.09 — 2010.07.22


Ashes, ashes

“Good news!” the priest paused in the pulpit and stared us down in the dark. “You’re dead!”  So began the sermon on my first Ash Wednesday. My own worship tradition didn’t include lament, or this season of purple.

“If this is not your Lent, if you are happy, if all is well, still you should take ashes and take heed: your time of mourning will come. The psalmist says man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. You are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I went slack in the pew. I felt dead, and I was relieved for someone to name it.

I lived alone, that year. I’d moved across the country for a demanding job. I’d fallen in love, hard, but my boyfriend decided to date someone else — a woman I saw almost every day. The snow-less winter plagued me and spring rains seemed endless. My faith did not cheer me. It’s not that I didn’t believe in the resurrection — I staked my life on it, or I wouldn’t have taken such a cross-country adventure. But I was tired.

I come from a plain tradition of polished crosses and Christian triumph. On my first Ash Wednesday, the processional cross was shrouded with sheer purple fabric, tied with purple ribbon, so the cross could not be clearly seen. The sight disturbed me, alerted me to something different going on in this place. The cross at the altar was similarly veiled. My faith felt veiled, too.

The priest said the way up to heaven is the way down — a quote from Dante. He suggested the way down goes through our own hell, an adaptation of Dante’s thought. Is that true? It’s not a story from scriptures, but from the mind and heart of Dante, from the mind and heart of the priest in the pulpit. “If you are at the bottom and you are wise enough to know it, congratulations,” said the preacher. He said Jesus knew all about the ashen place, our sadness and doubt. The long road to resurrection begins there, at the ashes.

“Good news!” he repeated. “You’re dead.” He pulled the chain on the pulpit’s lamp and the cathedral went dark, dark and silent like the night road from the garden at Gethsemane.

I wept through the ashen cross drawn on my forehead, wept as others filed out of the pews into the dark night. No one asked me to cheer up. No one smiled — that was for another day.

Down, up, dead, alive-it was so different from what I’d been taught, so gritty, so… faithful. I’d been a Christian for more than a decade, but somehow I’d missed this permission to be truthful about darkness. If Christ is with me even at my lowest, I didn’t need to pretend strength anymore. If creation groans, waiting, as the letter to the Romans says, then I could groan, too. If Christ truly raises the dead and saves the desperate, then we can be who we truly are, without fear, wrapped in Jesus’ love even while we suffer.

I felt like I could mourn for the forty days of Lent or maybe more, maybe until the final feast of the resurrection. And I felt strangely free.

John Buenz was patient and humorous with my demands to know the biblical basis of various liturgical practices. He served as Dean of the Cathedral at St. John the Evangelist, Spokane, Washington, and he had a habit of making the gospel seem completely new to me, each Sunday. I moved to Spokane in 1988 and returned to the eastern U.S. in 1990. I joined an Episcopal church the following year.

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