Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wed.

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.


Mary Beth said...

how awesome that you got to do this. :)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

We can agree to disagree on this, my sister, but I am heartened to know that you had conversations with students before distributing ashes. That is a very important component to the ritual.

I just wrote up a bunch of stuff in my comment section you might want to check.

As for Tamar, I think you are making HUGE assumptions - about Tamar and Amnon - ones I obviously don't share. I've done a lot of work with rape victims, survivors and rapists and I've rarely known a rapist to repent, no matter how much damage they know they caused. In fact, some seem to get off on the damage. It's not a sign of repentance but a sign of their power. We'll just agree to disagree on this one.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I was over there on Elizabeth's blog, too, and it is a fascinating set of comments.

It sounds like you had some very profound moments taking ashes to the streets!

I think what will be interesting will be to discover, perhaps five years from now, what effect these encounters have had on people's faith journeys.

Muthah+ said...

EMK, I am not saying that Amnon ever repented, but the ashes of Tamar marked Amnon. He has been known as a rapist for 2,500 years. We don't know what became of either of them, but all of history has known him as a rapist. Did he ever have to pay for his sins? We don't know.

Ashes were also a sign of loss or death. Tamar wore them because of what she had lost. I have incredible respect for Tamar. For her time, she made it clear what had happened to her rather than hide it as so many women even today would do. She stood for the 'wronged woman' in her society. She may have chosen to be in the protection of her brother for the remainder of her life. We do not know from the text.

But I do believe that ashes have a much broader symbolic power than what the Church has usually inspired. And I am of the mind that it is appropriate for us to claim broader meanings from the sacramentals of the faith.

I too have worked with survivors of sexual abuse and rape. And I find that it is important for a victim to become a survivor it requires helping the victim to reclaim signs and symbols of faith by looking at them in different lights. When signs are reclaimed they offer real power to survive.