Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Christian penitence: Ash Wednesday

Next to Advent, Lent is my favorite season of the year. We are anticipating the most important event of the church calendar, and so Lent provides an opportunity to contemplate and prepare for that event over the next 46 days (including six Sundays).

Ash Wednesday itself is also very special. Since I returned to the faith as an adult, it’s the only time that I religiously (!) attend church midweek during the year. To me, Ash Wednesday sets the tone

Every year I also have the scramble of juggling work, commuting and spending an hour in church on Ash Wednesday. Last year, I had meetings both at breakfast and lunch, so I had to go after work.

And then there's the question of the ashes. At a previous job, I was a coward about wearing ashes to work — how people would react, having to explain, possible stigmatizing as a crazy Christian. Non-Christians (and most Protestants) did (and do) ask “what’s the smudge” as I walk through the day. (At my current job, there are two Catholics who regularly do Ash Wednesday so I don’t feel so alone.)

Ash Wednesday and Lent have historically been associated with fasting. This morning I've already failed on the fasting — in part due to forgetfulness, in part because I don’t want to fight the freeways when there’s a possibility of fainting (unlikely in the morning, a serious issue at the end of an all-day fast).

Searching for Ashes

Given my work and travel schedule, many years I’m searching for a parish to attend with a compatible schedule. In downtown London, these would be CoE, but here in California, Continuing Anglicans are few and far between.

Who might have such service?
  1. Any 28 BCP parish
  2. Many ACNA parishes
  3. TEC parishes
  4. LCMS Lutherans
  5. Other Lutherans
  6. Presbyterian?
  7. University Chaplaincy
  8. Catholic
I normally do #1, #2 or #4, but have also done #7 or #8 when that was all that worked. Since the RCC practices closed communion, I try to respect their policies and avoid that option whenever possible.

Today I went to an Anglican Catholic Church, one of the four founding provinces from the Affirmation of St. Louis that kicked off the Continuing Anglican movement. It reminded me of an English village church, with a small sanctuary (<100 seats in the pews) and a young rector and his wife.

It was a wonderfully moving procedure. After many months of ACNA worship in a strip mall, it was great to hear the classic liturgy again. Most of all, it was great to be kneeling again: it’s hard to imagine the Lord’s Prayer (let alone the General Confession or the Prayer of Humble Access) without kneeling, particularly during Lent.

In general, any parish that bothers to hold Ash Wednesday services tends to convey the theology correctly. For me, the culmination is to hear the phrase “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (which is not in the 1928 BCP but is in the 1979 prayer book). Still, the Lutherans — with Luther’s fixation on us as “poor miserable sinners” — tend to be particularly evocative this time of year.

Ash Wednesday Music

One thing I’ve always had mixed feelings on is music at Ash Wednesday (and Good Friday). During my LCMS days, the choir showed up for Ash Wednesday and we all sang a hymn or two. I don’t doubt that there are pieces that could be programmed, such as excerpts from masses during the golden era of sacred music (roughly from Palestrina to Brahms)

However, to me Ash Wednesday is a penitent, somber event and so a simpler, less ornate (and less celebratory tone) seem most appropriate. In fact, if the normal Sunday service is a nicely done high mass, the contrast of the spoken service (IMHO) emphasizes the somber and penitential nature.

For a contrary perspective, I listened to this year’s Ash Wednesday service from St. John’s College, Cambridge, as part of the BBC’s semiweekly Choral Evensong broadcast. It was great to hear the service begun with the full General Confession (not the Confession Lite begun with the 79 prayer book). And the plainchant for the service music does link the service to the weekly liturgy.

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