Contentious rituals, contentious ashes–seeking meaning in a secular world

I’ve been reflecting on Ash Wednesday–my own experience of it as well as its place in American culture the past couple of days. I’ve especially been intrigued by the growing popularity of “ashes to go” as well as the pushback. This movement has generated considerable publicity, both in traditional media and onlne and it has given rise to some interesting thinking about Ash Wednesday’s significance in post-christian culture.

I’ll dust off my former “religious studies scholar hat” for a moment or two. The power and meaning of rituals are much debated, both within and between religious communities, and among scholars of religion. In the west, in contemporary American Christianity, there are relatively few rituals that use real matter as powerfully and dramatically as Ash Wednesday. Think about it. The water of baptism leaves no physical mark after one has dried off; the bread and wine of the Eucharist are often reduced to faint imitations of real bread and wine. Even burials are rarely accompanied by the sight of real dirt (astroturf covers the open grave and if dirt is needed to sprinkle while saying “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the funeral director provides a small vial of sand).

Ashes are real. Of course one can buy them from religious supply houses but most of us like to go the whole nine yards, burning last year’s palms and grinding them up. Ashes are messy. I have yet to figure out how not to leave a trail of them throughout the church and as often as not, while distributing them, a few will fall on the nose or cheek of the people.

We rarely touch ashes or find them on our bodies, except on Ash Wednesday, or if we are in the midst of cleaning out a fireplace. Ashes are dirt; they are evidence of disorder and destruction and have no place in our daily life. Certainly they do not belong on our foreheads, or in a church. But there they are.

There is a deep anti-ritualism in Protestant Christianity that has extended itself to mainstream American culture. It’s only a ritual, we say; or that’s empty ritual. At the same time, there is a deep yearning for meaning, for authenticity, and for connection. Ash Wednesday offers all of those things. What is more real, more authentic than the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”? What deeper connection is made between the one who says those words and distributes the ashes, and the one who receives them? It may be a momentary connection, no more lasting than the touch of a thumb on a forehead and a shared glance, but in that moment there is connection, between priest and people, in an individual (their past, present, and future) and with an individual and their God, Creator and Redeemer.

Nothing about Ash Wednesday has surprised me more than the demographics at our services. There was a higher percentage of students and young adults at all of our services on Wednesday than there are on Sunday mornings. Clearly, the ritual of Ash Wednesday resonates.

There is a great deal of discussion about young adults and religion. Are they losing their religion? Are they disconnected and flying solo? How can we reach out and share the good news of Jesus Christ in this post-Christian world where people are seeking meaning and connection?

I think an answer might be here, in Ash Wednesday. To offer rituals, worship that are deeply authentic and connecting, not just with God, with other humans, or with our own emotions. To offer rituals that are authentic and connect us with the real–like ashes–that connect us with our humanity, our deepest selves, and show us that at our deepest selves is the desire and love of God, such rituals, whether performed in a a traditional space like a church, on a streetcorner or a subway stop, such rituals can offer hope, direction and grace, for broken people in a broken world.

More importantly, we can’t know what effect our actions might have on those we touch, we cannot know how God might be at work, whether those actions take place at an altar rail, or at a bus stop. Those effects are in God’s hands, in God’s grace, something for which I am endlessly grateful to the God I love and serve.

1 thought on “Contentious rituals, contentious ashes–seeking meaning in a secular world

  1. It’s an interesting issue. For me, I came to the Episcopal church out of a desire for both catholic ritual and protestant theology & polity. While ritual itself is nothing that is needed for salvation, it remains a very important mechanism by which people understand the world and come to find the divine in their lives. It would also be interesting to know if other, older, rituals resonate with the young as well. I can’t help but think that there is a growing desire for these rituals that link us back to a past we barely remember.

    The dangerous thing is not the ritual – it is the theology that underlies the ritual and that’s also where we in the Episcopal tradition can find our meaning; our necessity; in providing an alternative to a reactionary basis for the rituals that so many seem to be needing. Our missionary purpose to teach people our understanding of the universal teachings that underlie the ritual and how they can help people live better lives in the modern world.

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