When I was very young, we went to a traditional Presbyterian church that practiced the church calendar and incorporated some liturgy into the Sunday service. After my family left there, we ended up in charismatic and Pentecostal churches, as well as the Church of God: all of which do not follow the church calendar and have only kept communion in their services. In those churches, I heard how liturgy was something that was rote and how we were to be led by the Spirit and that there was freedom in not following a liturgical service week after week after week. Yet, the older I get, the more I desperately long for liturgy. I pray the daily offices. I practice silence and contemplation. I even bought a copy of the Book of Common Prayer at a library book sale, which I often use and has helped me to pray when I did not want to or could not find the words to pray.
It was Ash Wednesday.
This desperate longing made me want to be part of an Ash Wednesday service, something the church we attend now does not do.
Certainly it made sense to me now, as I was undertaking this forty days in the wilderness, to take part in an Ash Wednesday service. It was the first day of Lent, after all, when followers of Christ around the world remember Christ being led into the desert where he fasted and prayed forty days. Lent is a time of prayer, fasting and repentance (just as my forty days would become).
I had been spending time in this wilderness: studying the gospels' accounts of Jesus in the desert, reflecting on and meditating on these passages as part of a practice called Lectio Divina. For those who are unfamiliar with this, Lectio Divina is a way to slow down, contemplate and pray the scriptures. One not only lets the text shape and form oneself, but one brings more of oneself to the text itself because one finds the God who enters into biblical events entering into our own personal histories. When I read the Bible this way, I don't rush through the words, but read it slowly, listening to the Spirit to teach me in the silence. It can truly be transformational.
Yet, around the time of Ash Wednesday, I felt like a desert. My mouth was dry and my prayers tasted like sand and ashes on my tongue. They were prayers I forced myself to pray when I didn't feel like praying at all. Opening my Bible that morning, I found myself reading from Psalm 62, "For God alone my soul waits in silence; for him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken."
This made me think of how Eugene Peterson translated the first verse of Psalm 65, "Silence is praise to you."
How many churches actually believe and practice silence that way?
So I am silent. I will wait in silence. And I look out the window at a sky the color of ashes.
My day started in silence, but as it so often happens when we go about our busy days, it did not stay that way. I was driving between stores that I call on and was approaching a green light when, all of a sudden, a young woman pulled out from a side street in front of me and, though I hit my brakes immediately, my car hit the rear of her van. The day was overcast and chilly. I stood there in the median with this young woman, as we waited for the police to arrive. The coolness of the morning was accentuated by the rushing of cars past us. I found myself asking, "Where is God in this circumstance?"
I was there to reflect God to this young woman who was terrified because this wasn't her first accident (she had totaled her own car just a few hundred feet from this accident) and she was driving her father's van. So instead of allowing myself to feel stressed or overwhelmed or angry or upset, I remained calm to calm her. I spoke words of peace and comfort. "Let the peace of Christ rule in your heart," I thought of the verse from Colossians, "and be thankful."
Yet, after the accident, I wondered if I still wanted to go to the Ash Wednesday service that night at a nearby Episcopal Church. To be honest, I didn't want to. Yet, I could not dismiss going, because the Spirit deep inside me told me that I needed to go. As the time drew near to go that night, the ash gray sky had turned a dark, coal black. It was ominously warning of an approaching and, possibly, violent storm. Maybe I shouldn't go, I thought, maybe I should just forget the service and stay home. My wife and the Holy Spirit urged me to go.
If the weather had been nicer, I would have simply walked the few blocks from our home to the church itself, but the weather forced me to drive the short distance. When I arrived at the church it was dark and the parking lot had few cars in it. Had the service been cancelled? What I didn't take into account is that most people don't tend to visit a church during an Ash Wednesday service at night. I considered heading back home, but I didn't. I parked my car and headed for the side door where I saw light. My plan was to sneak into the church, find a pew in the back, which would make my escape at the end of the service painless and easy with very little interaction with anyone. God seldom allows such plans to be and He did not this night, either. As I opened the door, I was first greeted by an older woman who introduced herself and welcomed me. She then introduced me to the Deacon.
The Deacon was a beautiful African-American woman whose smile and manner put me immediately at ease because there was a joy and a light that welcomed anyone. Her warm manner encouraged conversation and I discovered that she had been a Baptist herself. We laughed at how we were both Baptists, but not Baptists. Like myself, she had always been a questioner. Our talk turned to questioning and how it's okay to do so and not have to have answers to them and to not fully understand God because we cannot or else it is not really God. We spoke of how many churches were afraid of this, to admit this and were unwelcoming of its congregations and its pastors questions, doubts and struggles. I hated for our conversation to end, as it was the first time in my forty-eight years that I had ever had such a dialogue with a member of the clergy and found connection and the ability to hold this kind of thinking as important part of one's spiritual process and formation. It was much needed and refreshing to not only openly discuss Divine Mystery but to have a member of the clergy welcome and embrace this; in fact, she told me that she had just preached a sermon this past Sunday on the topic. Oh how I had wished I had been there to have heard it. Perhaps the Pentecostal part of me would have stood up and shouted, "Amen! Preach!"
I was shown into the sanctuary and, as I entered, I was greeted not by noise but by silence. There were a few others already there, scattered about, and I slipped into a pew near the back and became still. It was glorious not to be inundated by noise, even if it is praise music playing or people socializing. Instead, there was reflection and meditation. It reminded me of a line from one of my favorite books, Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss, where he writes, "Silence is the language of faith."
Before beginning my own meditative communion with God, I took in the beauty of the sanctuary. My eyes were first drawn to the gorgeous wooden block carvings that were hung all along the walls with their depictions of Christ (in the wilderness and the events of Lent leading up to Easter). Then I looked at the altar where the golden crosses were draped in sheer purple fabric. Behind the altar was the passage from Mark 1:9-10:
Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized
of John in Jordan. And straightway coming out of the
water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit
like a dove descending upon him,; and there came
a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved
Son, in whom I am well pleased.
The very words Christ hears from his Abba before the Spirit thrusts him into the wilderness for forty days.
The service began with a silent processional of the clergy walking up the center aisle to the altar.
Once the service began, it was intimidating because it was unfamiliar. I was out of my religious routine and was the stranger in the midst since I was the only one there who wasn't a member. And because there were only eighteen people there, I definitely stood out. Unlike everyone else, I didn't know what to say or when to say it. Nor did I know the hymns they sang, so I very, very softly tried to worship with them without being heard by anyone around me so they couldn't hear my slip ups. the Lectors read passages from Joel 2, Psalm 103 and 2nd Corinthians. Then the rector took to the pulpit for his sermon.
This was followed by the bidding and the Blessing of the Ashes. Along with the other celebrants, I walked down front (though I did not dip my finger in the holy water and make the sign of the cross because I wasn't sure how one did it properly) but I knelt at the altar as the Rector moved down the row of people, made a cross from the ashes on each person's forehead and reminded us, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." It was a beautiful expression of grief and hope, death and life that belongs in celebrating Lent, the death and resurrection of Christ. After he had done this to each person, he told us, "Go in peace." So we rose, I wiped a tear from my eye, and returned to our pews.
After an offertory and a hymn came the liturgy of the table, the Eucharist. This is one of the liturgies that I most long for and need to celebrate on a continual basis. That from brokenness comes beauty, comes redemption and new life. Once more, I joined the celebrants to kneel at the altar. I held out my hands to receive the host (a thin bread wafer) that the Deacon placed in my hands. Then the chalice bearer came and offered each celebrant a chalice of wine to sip from. How different this was from every other communion I had ever taken part in where a silver tray of thin wafers and of small plastic cups of grape juice are passed down the rows. There was something humbling and purifying about kneeling like a small child to simply receive: to be handed the host and then having the chalice guided to my lips for me to sip the wine. After each celebrant had partaken of the Eucharist, the Rector said again, "Go in peace."
Outside, there were bold flashes of lightning and loud, thunderous sounds of thunder from the storm. But inside this church, was something different, something contrasting, something restful and calming as the celebrants did not just go back to their pews but greeted each other with either "Peace be with you" or simply "Peace." Oh how my soul needed to hear those words after having celebrated the communion of Christ's willingness to let his body be broken like bread and his blood to flow from him like wine and to be granted his peace.
There was a worshipful reverence to the whole service that fed and nourished a part of me that had not been in a very long time. I leaned in to this liturgy and found in it the language of the ineffable.
After the service had ended, I exited the sanctuary and, unlike my original plan, found myself now in conversation with the Rector himself. This conversation was a pastorly one of the usual, "Are you new to the area? Are you a member of a church?" When he found out that I was a member in a local body, he was hesitant to suggest my coming back. I explained that this service fed something in me in such a way that I would love to come back again. I could make no promises beyond that. My family loves the church we attend and I am not about to pull them out of a church just because there is something in me that longs for something else that is richer and older in tradition, that embraces silence and liturgy.
For years, my real Church has been the books I have read across the ecclesiastical spectrum. Still, despite my uncertainty about what path lies ahead for me, at least for one night, I felt a twinge of connection that makes me believe that I am, indeed, not alone in my faith, my spiritual wrestling, and a love for liturgical worship.
In writing about Rilke's Seventh Divino Elegy, Christian Wiman's words apply, " . . . spiritual experiences must be transformed within us, that there is hard work of inwardness to do, of consciousness before those experiences become available to the rest of our lives."
Out of the ashes of Wednesday came hope and a curious wondering of what would happen next. It was now time for me to process just what that service ultimately meant in my spiritual process, in my Christian journey.
Still, at least for that night, I was simply and spiritually fed. And I carried with me those words that I will leave you with now, "Peace be with you."