Thursday after Ash Wednesday

The Collect for this day:

Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name, and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Until we get to the heresy part, this is a much better beginning to Lent than obsessions over the Ash Wednesday Collect. But in reflecting on that further, for a moment, because I can see it will continue to be a stumbling block for me throughout Lent if I don’t lay it down, I should just say:

I admit I tend to now approach most theological ideas from a position of “trinitarian universalism.” So when something like “eternal life” and “salvation” seems predicated on weak, human fallibility rising above itself to seek God’s forgiveness and then either keep itself in a state of sinlessness until the point of death (uh huh; sure) or, more likely, rest assured and smug by merit of baptism in the faith of Jesus Christ — even when that baptism was performed before my assent was possible — then I start to get suspicious of some theological holes. Or maybe loopholes. We of the infant baptism traditions tend to get around this problem with our own confirmation of our baptism, taken around the age when Baptists baptize and Jews bar/bat mitzvah, so certainly part of the human family’s understanding of coming into personal and corporate relationship with God.

And just to note that I’m all in favor of infant baptism. I’m agnostic on the whole circumcision issue that seems to be roiling the “men’s movement” and other goofy counter-reformations, but just as Judaism has its rites for infants to recognize their participation in the people of Israel, like it or not, I’m all in favor of infant baptism, because it actually makes my point that salvation is freely given of God and nothing we ourselves can do anything to obtain. We cannot even seek it, and may do violence to our own spiritual health by thinking we can and must, or worse and more often, that we’re A-OK, but others can and must.

So I find myself also hearing collects, hymns, and scripture through a subwoofer of this trinitarian universalism. Which threatens to take up all my attention if I let it. Yet, to be honest, in my own jerry-rigged theological framework, I suppose I see it that if we are to partake of that eternal life in this life, even as we see through a glass darkly, then we do have to seek it, we do have to confess our sins, we do have to live in love and charity with our neighbors, we do have to engage in fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. What I want to take off the table is the notion that our loving Father will cast us into hell if we don’t believe rightly, confess completely, and repent thoroughly. So let’s let Lent prepare us for Easter, not for heaven. Let’s let God prepare us for heaven, not so that we can be the only ones who get there. Instead, let us in Lent let God be God and learn to be truly us, a picture taken before the Fall and our own personal poaching of the Tree of Knowledge, and not the picture of us we’d like God and others to see. Then when we reach heaven, we can maybe be allowed this much smugness toward all the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, animists, Arminists, Hittites, Shiites, Sadducees and Samaritans, agnostics, and atheists we find thereupon: “See! We told you it would be wonderful and beyond any space- and time-bound consciousness to describe it truly!”

Which brings me to today’s collect:

“Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help”; As this seems to be the same thing I pray daily — although this is much more mellifluent and succinct than I ever manage in my rambling babbling to God — I’m thinking that perhaps I should memorize this collect. It already looks amazingly applicable year-round, especially for daily use.

“…that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name”: Redundant? If we begin, continue, and end our works in God, wouldn’t that glorify his holy Name? I think perhaps this is a call to to keep us from deceiving ourselves. That “does it glorify God?” becomes the measure against whether we have truly begun, continued, and ended our works in him (or at least truly attempted to, and let God take care of the rest), and not walk in denial of the sinful and self-seeking nature of so much of what we do, shrouding our awareness of our disingenuity and cynicism with the self-assurance that we are doing God’s work. Because that is surely one of the gravest sins facing humanity today and perhaps throughout recorded time: self-justification through faith.

“…and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life”: This was my only sticking point, my only real problem, and it doesn’t entirely go away even once I’ve taken salvation of the self-elect off the table. For one thing, there’s that “finally” — meaning, I can only see, “upon our death” — and as the sentence is written (without my break for annotation) we’ve got “that in all our works…we may…obtain everlasting life.”

But that one word seems to save salvation: “mercy.” In a more wholistic reading, not line-editing the prayerbook, this prayer seems to ask God’s help in showing us what to do, enabling us to do it, and blessing the results to be to his greater glory. And asking that, once our work is finished, we may enjoy that eternal joy with and “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

For now I’ll leave alone the question of the collect seeming to begin in address to Christ, but ending addressed to the Father. Because, like I said, I’m a trinitarian universalist. So it’s all good.

Ash Wednesday 2018

The Collect for this day:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I think I am over Ash Wednesday.

Growing up, Ash Wednesday (if we even called it that) was not particularly noted. It was the 1970s and early 80s in a very Protestant town in a staunchly Presbyterian church. Lent was certainly observed, in the sense that the lessons were prescribed by The Worshipbook (1970), which introduced one of those Protestant denominational lectionaries (themselves based on the Roman Catholic lectionary work out of Vatican II) that later were rolled up into today’s Revised Common Lectionary. So I was in my formative years of Christian worship during the Presbyterian Church’s own formative years of ecumenism in worship.

But it was still recognizably Presbyterian worship. I’m sure it still is, but our ministers (rarely called “clergy” in a church that took the “priesthood of all believers” nearly literally) and choir wore only the academic-style “Geneva” robes. In the late 1970s, we had a Welsh senior minister who I think introduced us to the notion of clerical collars. I remember he would offer the benediction on St. David’s Day — a saint’s day being by itself a very suspect notion, if he were not himself so thoroughly Reformed — *in* Welsh. So while many American Presbyterians were rediscovering their Scottish roots, we were exploring our Welsh roots, in northeast Oklahoma.

But there was no imposition of ashes on the first day of Lent. As lectionary ecumenism led to other explorations of earlier Presbyterian and Reformed traditions that held more in common with its Anglican siblings than its Methodist nieces and nephews, we might have a simple congregational dinner — bean soup, iceberg lettuce salad (or spinach, if we were being exotic), garlic bread, and several choices for dessert, Lenten discipline be damned on that score when it comes to church suppers.

Nowadays, there’s an Ash Wednesday service at the church where grew up and I think they may even impose ashes on the foreheads of today’s staunch Presbyterians. Although staunchness seems to be out of favor among that denomination — just as you’d be hard-pressed to find an Episcopal Church in most cities today that is overly concerned with its earlier Reformation allegiance, as proudly proclaimed in its former name, “The Protestant Episcopal Church.”

Funny aside: When the Anglican Communion in Japan had become established to the point of finding its own name as a national church and consecrating its own bishops (1923), it landed on Nippon Sei Ko Kai: “Japanese Holy Catholic Church.” Because “Protestant Episcopal Church” translated into Japanese meant “house of the quarrelsome overlords.”

I didn’t really discover Ash Wednesday until I joined the quarrelsome overlord church in 1986. It was, along with all the other smells and bells being rediscovered in the newly Anglo-Catholic Episcopal Church, a wonderful, earthy (even dusty!), physical experience of worship that I’d never seen outside of movies or books. (There has to be a high overlap among people who became Episcopalians as adults and adults who read and loved the Harry Potter series. And no, it’s not satanic witchcraft to have a cross marked in ashes on your forehead, although there is an element of medieval “bring out your dead!” to the proceedings. That’s part of the thrill, I think.)

But after more than 30 years of weighing the Gospel lesson for the day against the ashes on the head — part of me wants to take a break from Ash Wednesday. Not from Lent, but from trying to unearth fresh or thawed identification with the practice of imposing ashes … and singing the same lugubrious hymns. (There are only 11 hymns specifically for Lent in the Episcopal hymnal, so even if you process in and out without singing, you still end up singing them all way more than you might want to, especially since not very many of them are very good.)

By contrast, parts of the Collect for today feel less dusty. A “new and contrite heart” is something I can get behind. In other years, I have had profound Lenten journeys that were begun being reminded that I am dust and to dust I shall return. I got that part, I think. At least for this year, when you’ve got ashes on offer — imposition of ashes; round-the-clock ashing; ashes-to-go at the train station — I’m gonna pass, I think. Probably next year. Or the year after that. (Not the first time I wish some of our liturgical traditions were on a three-year cycle, same as the lectionary. Years go by much too quickly as the number of younger people I run across seems to increase. It can’t be a coincidence; I think they’re causing it.)

Beyond that, however, I’m not even sure I’m completely on board with this whole Collect today.

“Almighty and edverlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…”: so far, so (pretty) good. It’s certainly more tepid than any notion of unconditional love, but at least God didn’t make us to hate us.

“…and forgive the sins of all who are penitent”: Hmm. There’s that debate (perhaps *the* debate) among the Christians: Does God forgive us even if we are not penitent? It’s probably really a koan, in the “if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound” kind of way. Perhaps I can affirm that God forgives the penitent just as I can affirm that Black Lives Matter. Because all lives do *not* matter unless Black Lives Matter. But if it comes down to me being told to forgive 70 times 7 times, but my Father in heaven will *only* forgive if I am penitent seems to hold God to a lower standard. It also doesn’t seem to square with Jesus’ prayer on the cross — not to get ahead of ourselves here and jump to the end of Lent — to forgive them “for they know not what they do.” And even that, I wonder, may be too conditional. But it’s not me hanging on the cross, so I won’t quibble with Jesus’ doctrine of grace and salvation. He performed admirably under a lot of stress, I think.

“Create and make in us new and contrite hearts”: Yes. And not just in a self-help, self-improvement way. But in the modern age, it’s hard not to hear it in this sense. And perhaps it’s not the worst way to approach it. But a “new” heart seems at least to recommend a “new” way of contrition that isn’t just being the best us we can be.

“…that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness”: This kind of stinks, straight up. If it were even “we, who worthily lament…” it would be better. Maybe it is just a statement of fact, however. That it’s understood that you wouldn’t be praying this unless you were asking it. You can’t (I can’t, at least) very easily pray: “Lord, forgive me, even though I’m not a bit remorseful for my sins.” Mother Church wisely does not to wish to raise her children to be psychopaths secure in their faith. Having said all this, and even being at heart the way I feel and understand it, the Collect still reeks of conditional love. But then, the Bible itself does, most of the time. You have to dig carefully and then interpret roughly to understand anything like grace.

“…through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Welcome to Lent: The Season of (Conditional) Love