I attended an Ash Wednesday service tonight. There were six of us there in a really pretty Methodist church. I always do Ash Wednesday with the Methodists. It’s not intentional, it just works out that way and now I feel like they’re my go-to Ash Wednesday people. Yay, Methodists! You rock that penitence thang!
I really like wrestling with the theology on A.W., (some of it I totally reject with a Universalist harumph) and this year I tripped and fell over some of the phrases in the liturgy, like this doozy from the Confession (Luke 9:51 and Romans 3:19-26):
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Say WHAT? I don’t remember that one from past years. By Jove, my theological education totally failed. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was tempted to raise my hand and go, “Wait, can we just HOLD UP A SECOND while someone explains this to me?”
I was so busy staring cross-eyed at the Confession that I totally missed the 30 seconds or so we were given for the subsequent silent self-reflection, during which I supposed to confess my sins. Before you could say Jack Robinson we had zoomed through our sins and it was time for the Words of Assurance and Forgiveness which say, in part,
We who have faced our sins and confessed them, are now forgiven.
At first I felt bad because I had skipped right from being confused by the Confession to being forgiven my sins but I figured God might actually know them anyway even if I didn’t have time to think of them in church. I promised to get a list done later, like in the car. But let me just say this to liturgists: please give us a more reasonable amount of time to confess our sins! People who get done early can admire the altar flowers. [This just in: there ARE no altar flowers during Lent. My bad. So those people can send texts or something. - PB]
At this point, a handsome man of retirement age got up to preach. He was super casually dressed in Merrills hiking shoes and a long dark blue chamois or maybe corduroy shirt which was just right for the setting and the evening. He says, “I’m looking at this bulletin and you know, I’m just tempted to say ‘let’s spend a few minutes in silent meditation.’” And I pipe up, like a dork and say, “Brother, preach! Preach to us!” I swear on a stack of Bibles those were my exact words. Crazy church lady.
Everyone turns around to look at me, but nicely, and they chuckle. I’m hopeful, because quite seriously I am deeply wishing for a good Lenten homily and then the preacher says, “Thank you,” and I say, “Thank you,” to me and he hesitates for a second or two and then starts preaching. He starts out by saying that he’s retired and that he hasn’t preached in six years. His quietness and awkwardness and total honesty are spellbinding, a kind of slow wind-up to a full-blown sermon about how God wants us to be real, and all about King David and all the great things that David was known for, but the most important thing that David ever did was to write the psalm or repentance that we know as Psalm 51, after that really disgusting stuff he pulled on Uriah.
It’s a classic, old-school sermon and I love every bit of it. To me, it’s like watching a retired pitcher come up to the mound and sizzle a few over the plate. Like, “You still got it, Reverend.” It makes me really happy to be with this little group of Methodists and to hear that we’re dust and to dust we shall return, and to get that little smudge on my forehead (it’s not really a cross, it’s more like a messy circle) that marks me as someone who wants to draw closer to God in this season of reflection and contemplation of my mortality.
Of course the sweet organist comes over after the service and greets me and frets about there being so few people.
Of course a nice lady welcomes me to the church and says she’d love to have me join their choir.
Of course everyone stands around in the foyer chatting a little bit awkwardly because we have just shared this really bizarre and pretty serious ritual and now we’re just ordinary suburbanites with dirt on our faces. And of course, because I am PeaceBang, I have to apologize for my attire because when I threw my overnight bag together for this retreat I was not thinking that I’d be attending a church service. I am wearing yoga pants, a hoodie, a knit cap and snow boots with a little bit of mud on them, which embarrasses me when I notice it while sitting in my pew.
As I drive home I suddenly have a serious craving for chocolate and I think, “That’s weird.” I imagine all the people who are giving up chocolate for Lent curled in their beds dying for a hit of sugar like Jennifer Connelly’s tragic junkie character at the end of in “Requiem for a Dream,” and I decide that in solidarity with them, I won’t even ask the kitchen if there’s any dessert left over from dinner.