Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Sometimes I blog in reaction to what others have blogged, and today’s thoughts have been precipitated by my friend Elizabeth Kaeton. I have just come home from having ‘taken ashes to the people.’ I serve as a part-time chaplain to UTA (Univ. of TX—Arlington) . Knowing that we could not have a Eucharistic liturgy on campus, we got permission to distribute ashes on the patio outside of the student union. And I found it a wonderful experience.
Young people from the liturgical traditions smiled and came forward as we asked if they would like to receive ashes. Many said: “Oh, I had forgotten it was Ash Wed.” or “Thank you, I wasn’t going to be able to get to church because of classes.” One young man said, “Please pray for me. I am trying to quit smoking.”
Of course we had just as many who asked about the tradition. This is very Baptist country and many were unfamiliar with the tradition. It was a chance to explain the tradition to those who had wondered why their friends went around with dirty foreheads. I was able to chat with a young woman from Bangladesh about our time of fasting and reconciliation. A Jewish student was interested too. It was a place where we could begin the conversations that our pluralist society needs to discuss. Why do we do such things?
My sister, Elizabeth, asks the important question why. And I think it is the mere act of placing ashes on our foreheads that we begin to understand that while we are not to be hypocrites by flaunting our faith, we ARE claiming a faith that requires of us transformation. It is something that we hold in common with other faith traditions. The call to transformation says that we claim a God who invites us to be more than we were yesterday.
The example of Tamar is an interesting one. (2 Samuel 13) Tamar puts the ashes upon herself because of the rape, but she BECOMES the ashes for Amnon who puts Tamar away. He does not accept the ashes of repentance, but Tamar IS the sign of his dishonor.
Ashes are a sign of repentance and renewal for many historic traditions. They carry meaning for us today. Certainly in the liturgical setting, we can explain what WE mean. But cannot the ashes imposed at the railway station or on the front steps of our churches speak just as loud? Today one young woman came and then said she has spent the summer in Nepal. Smudges on the forehead were a sign of welcome and remembrance there. Are the signs of the Church only to denote a single meaning? Or do the symbols of faith reach deeper to the encounter with God that is universal? Personally I am willing to share those signs of faith as a way of sharing with others that profound witness to all that is Holy.