Wednesday, February 6, 2008

What's the smudge?

GodspellWhen I was in college I acquired two albums of Christian musicals. Godspell was better Gospel and (IMHO) better music. The more successful (but less enjoyable) musical succeeded as spectacle — but today Jesus Christ Superstar is perhaps best remembered as the third work (and first megahit) of the 20th century genius, Baron Lloyd-Webber. One of his more bombastic songs was “What’s the buzz”.

I was reminded of the song when three times this afternoon I was asked (in effect) “what’s the smudge” on my forehead. I decided beforehand to just say “Ash Wednesday”. I would have been unprepared to answer, if I hadn’t read (LCMS member) Mollie Hemingway’s post last night:
At my last newspaper job, my colleagues loved celebrating Mardi Gras (aka Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, last day before (Western) Lent). A favorite co-worker, from New Orleans, of course, would bring in a King Cake and we would feast. Some people would wear beads, etc. And then the next day when I came to work with ashes on my forehead, dozens of people would ask me what that was for. I never quite understood celebrating Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday without Ash Wednesday being the next day.
Among those who didn’t ask (and so presumably knew what was going on) were those with Italian or Irish names, who I thus assume either were Catholic or had Catholic relatives. This got me to thinking.

I’ve gone to Ash Wednesday services at Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. (Of course, it’s also observed at continuing Anglican parishes). My Orthodox friends, of course, observe Ash Wednesday — even if not on the same calendar.

But who else observes the day? The fasting? The imposition of ashes? Among liturgical Christians (as Mrs. Hemingway calls us), there may not be that many others. It’s controversial among Presbyterians. Ironically, after being part of the 1662 BCP praised by John Wesley was restored to (U.S.) Methodist liturgy through their postmodern prayer book.

Will Ash Wednesday survive in Protestant worship? It’s clearly there in the 1662 BCP and thus presumably in AMiA’s 21st century update. But interestingly, it makes not mention of the imposition of ashes (because it’s assumed, or because it’s a rejection of the Catholic church)?

Still, ashes and midweek devotionals seem like an Anglo-Catholic thing. I guess next year I need to got to an AMiA or other “low church” Anglican to see what they do.

We didn’t have hymns at today’s noontime service. But one of those called out for today is my favorite Lent hymn — the first Lenten hymn in the 1940 Hymnal, #55:
Forty days and forty nights
Thou wast fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights
Tempted, and yet undefiled
The 17th century tune from N├╝rnbergisches Gesangbuch is even better than the 19th century words.

BTW: Easter is early this year (March 23); according my 1928 BCP (p. liii), only one year in the past 200 years had an earlier Easter: March 22, 1818. However, Ash Wednesday that year was Feb. 4 (because Ash Wednesday is a day later on Leap Years).

Update: On Wednesday, the LCMS radio show Issues Etc. had a very interesting discussion in the last half of the first hour of the show. Host Todd Wilken talked about the origins of Lent, Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes with Dr. Paul Grime, a new faculty member at the LCMS seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

An extended (but parallel) exposition of the meaning of Ash Wednesday can be found in Touchstone magazine, which reprints a March 2004 column by editor David Mills. (H/T: The Continuum).


Warren said...

So, tell me what's a happenin'.

9.West said...

Glad someone got the joke.

Jeff said...

Small correction. Ash Wednesday is a Western phenomenon, related to the no fasting on Sundays rule. The Orthodox start Lent on Monday, with a preparatory foregoing of meat the week before. We loosen the fast on Sunday by permitting wine and oil, but there is still technically a fast.

If you grab a copy of the Anglican Breviary (which I highly recommend for anyone interested in AngloCatholic theology and liturgical custom), you'll note that Lent doesn't begin in the West until the Monday after Ash Wednesday. I'm not near my Breviary, but I believe the days following Ash Wednesday have other names.