By Sara Herrington Jones
Some moments hold too much – too much feeling – too much goodness, peace, reconciliation, and dare I say it? too much holiness for me to wrap in words. This year, Ash Wednesday was a day filled with too much.
In the Baptist congregation in which I serve, the ministerial staff and deacons decided to observe the imposition of ashes for the first time in the church’s near 70-year existence. Being a Cooperative Baptist congregation, we “cooperate” with community services and have had a service of observance at the beginning of Lent for some time, but it did not include the act of marking another human being with ashes. My colleague suggested that it might be helpful for me to attend a service at another local congregation earlier in the day to “prepare” for the evening service with my own congregants.
I entered the noonday service expecting to know no one but the minister. To my surprise, there sat professors from Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and other minister friends in town who apparently had chosen to attend this service for similar reasons as I had (none of my congregants were there, however). Some of the faces I recognized in the crowd, though, were those in the community with whom I disagree regarding local politics, or those whom I know have inflicted emotional stress on one of my congregants, or one who mistrusts me as a minister because I am a woman.
“How do I hold these unexpected feelings of discomfort and confess them, Lord?”
It was explained that following a brief sermon and time of silence, each of us in the room was to come, kneel and encounter a glimpse of our own mortality as we were to be reminded that “from dust you came, and to dust you shall return.”
“None of us are getting out of here alive, basically,” I thought to myself. But the words of the pastor’s sermon struck me: the mark of ashes not only reminds us that we are frail humans marked for death before our existence, but also that it is only God’s gift of Christ which brings us life. It was a surprising, hope-filled meditation which preceded embarking on an awkward religious experience “celebrating” that we will certainly return to the soil once we take our last breath.
The imposition of ashes felt like a great equalizer. It was a visual reminder that, yes, we will all die regardless of status, privilege, belief or circumstance.
The service of ashes was accompanied by the Lord’s Supper. All of us present – friend, stranger, adversary, and challenger – came to the table, physically marked with black ashes as a foreboding sign that we are moving toward death with every new minute. It seemed an odd juxtaposition. Yet, in this equality-creating, devastating truth, there we were together at the table of the Lord.
There was hope, and there was peace. It was hope over death. It was hope for all of us children of dust – we, who cannot agree, who unintentionally hurt others, who, out of fear, mistrust each other and sometimes acquiesce to our lesser selves – we were all called by the same Christ and we functioned together for a greater purpose.
There is hope for all of us.
Jesus prepares a table for us and invites us to join in the crowded party which sometimes feels like a party whose host has invited too many guests. We find ourselves seated around the table with everyone else (whether we like it or not) – those who are good or bad, fun or fearful, all of us ugly and doomed humans, and our host, delighted that we are there, offers us all that is good: at this banquet, goodness, abundance, grace, love, peace, a space for reconciliation and re-connection, and the hope of life.
The solemnity of ashes marked the beginning of our Lenten journey. The journey reminds us that sometimes there are disagreements, grumpy people, uncomfortable situations and tension-filled moments as we make our way through life with a community of believers. It can also remind us that these things, too, are like the dust under our feet. It can give way to the eternal hope we are offered in Christ. It is hope for now and it is hope for eternity as we look for a time when Christ will be “all in all” as Paul writes.
We were there at the table with the Spirit of God, and it felt as if I had been offered an unexpected gift – an imaginative yet grounded view of the Kingdom of God which somehow still works with frail, dusty humans.
As I left the service, I noticed a peaceful spirit had settled over me. The faces of those in the crowd lingered in my memory. The “common union” we had in Christ was more important that our differences as head-strong, mistrusting humans.
With this change in my own heart, I was able to enter into leading the service for my own congregation. I was tasked with being, as our more liturgical brothers and sisters say, the “Celebrant” presiding at the table of communion following the imposition of ashes. With a renewed experience of God’s unfailing love and Christ’s ability to make room for all of us at the table, uniting us beyond our human division, I anticipated with new excitement the task assigned to me.
Watching our congregants experience the difficult and sometimes frightening reality of our certain death through the experience of ashes for the first time, it was in true joy that I also was able to offer my own congregants the assurance that death doesn’t get to have the last word.
Gathering at the table for second time in one day, it was easier to glimpse “it” – whatever I had (imagined? Experienced?) earlier in the day. Was it heaven? Parousia? The presence of God?What it might be like when Christ is all in all?
At the time, I just recall feeling like I was living in the closing communion scene of the movie “Place in the Heart.” It was a vignette which held so much for me that my words fail, but I was given an opportunity to live it again even on the same day. With this backdrop alive in my mind, I held out the bread to our congregants with new fervor. “The Bread of Heaven for you” I said looking into their eyes. And with each time, my heart sang, “Thanks be to God!”
Sara Herrington Jones is a CBF Leadership Scholar and student at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. She serves as Minister for Children at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.