Saturday, February 13, 2016

My first Ash Wednesday Service

This was the first Sunday we managed to attend an Ash Wednesday service.  It was a beautiful event, full of emotion and a real depth of spirituality.  Since I had been focusing on my preparations to sing in the choir I failed to notice before hand how thoroughly non denominational the occasion was.  Four priests from the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches jointly administered the service, taking turns officiating in different aspects of the service and even jointly administering the Eucharist.  As something I knew very little about before joining the Episcopal Church I thought I'd write up my thoughts of both Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.

First off just a brief explanation of where Ash Wednesday came from since I saw some information being passed online which was not very useful.  In the very early church very public sinners could face excommunication and because of the public nature of their sins they were made to perform a public penance in "sackcloth and ashes" before Easter to be readmitted to membership.  As time passed, a decision was made that instead of publicly singling out individual sinners everyone could participate in a special season of repentance and penitence in preparation for Easter.  It was recently argued in an article that the true reason for Ash Wednesday was to socially coerce people to attend confession by making it very visible who didn't show up because they wouldn't have ash on them.  If you accept this line of reasoning, I'd say you also have to accept the argument that the LDS church denies the sacrament to severe sinners and bans disfellowshiped members from praying in church in order to publicly make an example of them.  While people can always find ways to use public observances to shame people who won't or can't participate, jumping to the conclusion that this is the purpose of a publicly visible practice is disrespectful.

One of the things I love about worshiping in the Episcopal Church is that as the seasons change the theme and attitude of worship changes.  This allows the entire emotional experience of worship to be experienced from different points of view.  Since I grew up experiencing a fairly limited range of emotional approaches to spirituality, I find this very enriching.  For example, when we first visited it was during the season of lent.  A professor and friend of mine who worshiped there spotted me and made sure I knew what was going on.  He explained that the worship service was much more somber because we were in the season of lent, so for example we weren't shouting Alleluia.  And let me tell you, if the only Alleluia shout you've ever heard is at a temple dedication, you should hear our parish at Easter time.  Compared to the worship I was familiar with, the service seemed positively joyful.  I was particularly moved by this section of the service:

      The Lord be with you.
People        And also with you.
Celebrant    Lift up your hearts.
People        We lift them to the Lord.
Celebrant    Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People        It is right to give him thanks and praise.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
  Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
    Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
    Hosanna in the highest.

It seemed these words beautifully captured the essence of what worship should often be like, a celebration of the love and glory experienced in God.  I wondered at the time that if this were a solemn version of worship, what would a joyful service be like?

So in my first Lent season, I honestly didn't feel the spirit of penitence very much, distracted by the overall joyfulness of the service.  Since that time I've also experienced what an overwhelming overflow of joy Easter can be.  Also, when we first showed up our Priest had only been in his position for less than a year and I believe may have been going for just doing the basics as he was getting settled into his position.  The next year's Lent services had additional elements added which emphasized the penitential nature of the season.

To be honest, Ash Wednesday and Lent make me uncomfortable.  To give an example, listen to a group called Vox Reflexa singing a piece that our choir performed during Ash Wednesday.

It's beautiful music, but the Latin translates to "Spare your people Lord: Be not angry Lord with your people forever. Spare O Lord thy people, for thou art just and merciful, hear us lord forever." While God's justice and mercy are invoked, fundamentally the words are pleading to be spared.  It takes a step back from the consoling image of the ultimately loving God, to remind ourselves that there is a reason that God's love is so surprising and powerful.  We're not all that good at acting like we deserve Love all the time.  Its easier to focus on the happy and immediately consoling modes of worship.  Trying to find ways to improve yourself, dwelling on your imperfections and failings, and intentionally depriving yourself in order to better focus on worship and repentance isn't a comfortable thing.  As another example of how this focus comes out, a normal church service completes the confession of sin and absolution relatively quickly, and the text of that part of the service can be read in about two paragraphs of text.  On Ash Wednesday the confession goes on for some time.    To give a sense of it, here is a quote of just part of it:

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done:
for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our
indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our
neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those
who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of
concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

While I would not appreciate it if this deep level of introspection was the constant theme all year round since it would either lose meaning from constant repetition or cause an unhealthy depression of the spirit, I believe it is very healthy from time to time to focus on repentance more closely.  I remember once in my ward growing up the Bishop declared a season of repentance and spiritual improvement, focusing on ways the ward could spiritually grow.  It made for a beautiful experience as the spiritual depth of worship in the ward grew and became more meaningful.  Lent does the same thing except instead of it being a one time event happening because of the inspiration of one good man, Lent and Ash Wednesday are a yearly tradition, with aesthetic and spiritual practices reaching back through centuries of development and refinement.  I wouldn't say that I "believe" in Lent as was discussed online recently because its not a specific doctrine.  I'd say that it is a tradition that I am finding ways to practice and incorporate into my life because its beautiful and enriching and brings me closer to God.