I did a thing last night.
During this journey I’ve been on into the deep liturgical history of the Church, I’ve had all sorts of new discoveries along the way. Some of them I have enjoyed and some of them I’ve balked at. For example, I was really uncomfortable for awhile about the whole idea of bishops. I was raised Baptist and we didn’t take to that sort of thing. I mean, if there’s someone who is outside the control of the deacons, that can’t be a good thing, right?! (That was sarcasm in case you were wondering.)
I have loved the study of liturgical worship. My wife tells me I’m a nerd for getting into this so much and talking about it so much but oh well…then I’m a nerd. But the liturgical history of worship in the Church is rich and I commend the study of it to anyone who loves the Church. In fact, I just finished a book called “On The Apostolic Tradition” by Hippolytus. Whether there was one author or multiple is not the point of what I’m talking about. The liturgy in this writing comes from somewhere around 230-235 AD. Think about that for a second. We know what the liturgy of the Church was (at least the Hippolytean community in Rome) at around 235 AD. That is pretty awesome!
By the way, some forms of this liturgy are still in use today. That should be, on some level, cool for you to know and participate in.
But I digress.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. Despite the sarcasm of all my Baptist friends and their “fasting not to be seen” comments, there is a long and rich tradition of the practice of Lent in the Christian Church. The point of Lent wasn’t to appear hyper spiritual. The point of Lent was a time of preparation for the Church. That time of preparation through prayer, fasting and self denial was to prepare us for Holy Week, when we remember the passion of our Lord Jesus. Being raised Baptist, I had never observed Lent. But now I’m no longer Baptist and now I join a huge number of faithful Christians who observe Lent.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, during the worship service, ashes are placed (imposed) on the forehead of the believer by the priest or pastor. At our church, Church of the Redeemer (Nashville), this is done by the priests as we kneel before the cross displayed at the front of the church.
I want to talk about my experience a bit. I am part of what is called the LEM team. LEM stands for Lay Eucharistic Ministers. We are non-clergy volunteers who go through a training period in order to serve the congregation and priests during worship. We do things like carry the cross and candles during the procession and recession. We serve the chalice of wine to the faithful who come to receive the Lord’s Supper. We carry the Gospel Book, we read Scripture and the Creeds. Basically, we are there to serve the people and the priests and deacons during the worship gathering.
Last night I was the crucifer. I carried the crucifix during the procession, Gospel reading and recession. I also served as a chalice bearer. One of the things I love about liturgical worship (and that James KA Smith so eloquently unpacks) is that it engages all our senses. We see, we hear, we smell, we stand and sit and kneel and drink wine and eat bread; we speak aloud, we pray aloud and we pass the peace in handshakes or kisses on the cheek. I love this.
The first thing that happened that helped me to become engaged last night was when I picked up the crucifix to carry it down the aisle. It was heavy; heavier than I had anticipated. The people stood in absolute silence as we processed down the aisle. It was so quiet I could hear my own footfalls as I walked on a carpeted aisle. It was a quiet, meditative and holy moment.
The service was different. Less Scripture reading; the priests were wearing black cassocks, a cello played somber tones. It was deeply moving, quietly intense. But then the moment of the imposition of ashes came. I stood beside the Table. One of the priests picked up a small bowl and stuck his thumb into the black lump of ashes in the bowl. I don’t know why I did but I closed my eyes when his hand reached for my forehead.
I heard his soft and solemn voice say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Even as the words begin to sink in, I felt his thumb tracing a cross on to my forehead. The tactile scraping of the ashes was an immediate sensation. I could feel the grittiness of the ashes and smell them. In that moment I was starkly reminded that, contrary to my own selfish predilections, I am not the center of the universe; there is Another.
There is One who is outside of me that determines my life and my worth and my mortality.
And I was humbled and comforted by this fact. I feel like, even in the Church, we too often think we are the point. We think the world, and even the Church, revolves around us. But it doesn’t. The world, the Church revolves around Another, the One who has come, Jesus the Christ. He is the reason we sing, chant, pray, kneel. It is His body that was broken for us that is present with us in some mysterious way when we come to His table. It is His blood that was shed, beaten and nailed and pierced out of Him, so that you and I, by faith, may be made whole and right before God our Father and Creator. He is with us; in the daily moments and in the holy ones.
He was present with us last night as the ashes scraped across our foreheads and we were reminded of our mortality. In our mortality we are reminded that our desire for immortality, for eternal significance is only found in the broken and resurrected body of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We came to the Table after the ashes were imposed. I served the cup to my brothers and sisters and watched as some wept, some smiled, some laughed for joy, some prayed. But all of us knew that something holy was happening.
Jesus was among us.
And it was beautiful.
Soli Deo Gloria!