Our friend Kathy Clark up at the Federated Church in East Arlington is joining with Scott Neal at St. James Episcopal Church in Arlington to offer drive-by ashes today, once this morning, and then again later on in the day, each time at one of their churches. It’s an act of public liturgy, inspired, perhaps, by the publicity gained by Sara Miles, the director of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. There they have been taking ashes and creating a street altar in the middle of San Francisco’s Mission district for the past few years, a way of acknowledging the darkness and sin in the world while taking a symbol of God’s mercy into the streets. It’s a public act of faith.
I will be curious to hear about Kathy and Scott’s experiences, and I confess my own hesitancy to doing something like that here. Not only are we located on a street where people are not likely to “drive by,” but there’s something a little too “hip,” a little too “McChurch” for me in a drive-by imposition of ashes.
Clearly this is not a “popular” service amongst us New England UCC-types. Of the five of us at my clergy support group yesterday, ours was the only church having an Ash Wednesday service. And really, for a day when the gospel reading warns us against public shows of piety, the smearing of gritty, black ashes on our foreheads in the shape of a cross is an odd ritual. We don’t do this kind of thing usually. It’s a little too showy, too “catholic,” I’ve heard, and, when you think about it, rather an intimate act to have someone touch your face. It stops us in our tracks, which, actually, I think, is what it’s supposed to do.
“It’s the most honest of days,” one woman commented. “It’s a mystery, a sitting-with…a sitting with the dark. It is bearing witness to the dark.” She said this, remembering another Ash Wednesday, when her older sister had killed herself by jumping off the top floor of the parking garage at the hospital. The hospital chaplain had given her the ashes earlier in the day. Ash Wednesday is a bearing witness to the dark. [Christian Century, 2/5/14, p. 24]
I guess that’s my main objection to drive-by ashes. I’m as introverted as the next person–more than most, perhaps–but when I am called to bear witness to the darkness of my own life and the world’s, I don’t want to sit alone with it in my car. I think it is important that we bear witness to the dark–Ash Wednesday is something like Yom Kippur for our Jewish brothers and sisters. We don’t need to live our lives weighed down by our darkness and sin, but we do need to acknowledge it at some point, acknowledge that we are part of the evil and hatred and depravity of the world, tied up in structures and systems that oppress and destroy and deprive. We need to acknowledge that and let that knowledge sink in to inform us.
Like Yom Kippur, we need to do this on the world’s behalf. Somebody needs to bear witness. But just as we are part of the world’s darkness and sin–and it’s helpful to have others alongside us when we acknowledge this–so also it’s helpful to have others alongside us to remind us that it’s not up to just us, as individuals, to fix it. Certainly, we each need to decide what our part in the healing of the world will be, but we also need to know that we are not alone in this. We are part of a local community, a whole worldwide community, even a community that transcends time and space, that bears witness to the light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Otherwise, it’s too easy to get overwhelmed by the darkness and simply give up in despair.
This Lent, for example, we are exploring ways that we can be better stewards and advocates for the earth. Faced with the enormity and complexity of climate change, it doesn’t take long to throw up our hands in despair and simply give up…which is why we need each other, and not only the people at Second Congregational Church, but people all over, everywhere, in fact, who are so concerned and committed to leaving a beautiful, habitable planet to their children and grandchildren and all the generations to come that we will change our ways, advocate for policies that will stop or at least slow the warming, and be willing to sacrifice to make this happen.
That’s just one example of the darkness that we bear witness to tonight. It’s also the darkness in our own hearts that we may be painfully aware of, that we think only we carry–a failing, an addiction, a flaw–but perhaps especially with those “private” sins, it’s important to know that we are not alone. We are not the only ones.
And finally, when we bear witness to the darkness in us and in our world, it’s important to know not only are we surrounded by companions on the journey to the light, but we are given food and drink for the journey, the very body and blood of the One who entered into our darkness and bore witness to the Light. He was, in fact, the Light himself.
So, I’m glad to be here with you. I give thanks for your presence on this most honest of days, as we witness together and as we draw sustenance for the journey ahead. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark