I woke up early this morning. Too early, in fact, to stir without waking my sleeping wife, whose alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m. So I put on my headphones and turned on my iPod. At bedtime it had been set to Rachmaninoff’s beautiful Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
, for I am boldly attempting to sing it with a local choral group in May. But for some reason my iPod was now playing my entire library on shuffle, and I didn’t want to have the little but bright iPod screen light go on and disturb my wife, so I listened to an eclectic assortment of tunes, starting with Traffic’s “Freedom Rider,” then the Greatful Dead’s “Trucking,” and ending with something lovely by Mary Chapin Carpenter, with some Christmas music thrown in the middle for good measure.
The alarm promptly sounded its daily vigil, and as my wife prepared for work I got up to see if there was an early Ash Wednesday service I could attend, since I wanted to go snowshoeing, as we got a fresh new mantle last night, the first in quite awhile. I know snow has been wreaking havoc south of here, but we have had, not a snow-less winter, but an atypical one for the Berkshires, and I have been hiking in just boots and Yaktrax every day, so I was pumped to get on my snowshoes.
My denomination, the United Church of Christ in the U.S., is a rich mix of traditions, but the majority of them have Reformed roots, so Ash Wednesday has never been big for most of us. And especially here in New England, where the Congregational churches that sit in the center of every village and town have evolved from the Puritan settlers. The Puritans, who in so many ways got it right (but not always), historically took a dim view of such suspect accretions to the faith as Ash Wednesday services (they outlawed the celebration of Christmas for generations to give you some idea of where they were coming from.) In the UCC and other Reformed churches we are coming around, thanks to the cross-fertilization of the Twentieth Century ecumenical movement, so now you can find such services in our churches, but they are usually at night.
But I was raised an Episcopalian (as was my wife), and as a young person I used to go to the early Ash Wednesday Service with my Mom, who died when I was eighteen, and so I have many poignant memories of such services. I am very familiar and comfortable with the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, and fully accept the imposition of ashes, and so I tamp down my more Puritan impulses on such occasions.
Consequently, I looked on-line for the services at the local Episcopal Church, where I have a long history, as it is near the congregation I served for 22 years, and where my wife and I attend every once in a while. I was hoping for early, but be careful what you wish for, since the service was at 7:00 a.m., and it was already 6:40 and I was still in my PJs, and the church is a ten minute drive.
Now those of you who know me know that I am somewhat old school (I suspect my children might say to the point of fussiness), and don’t feel quite like myself in church without a coat and tie and proper shoes, but there was no time even for a shower (now occupied by the one who actually works). So I washed as best I could, and tried to disguise my bed-head, put on my hiking clothes and went to divine worship.
I arrived at the front door at 6:55 and it was locked. Hmm, I thought. This is clearly not a UCC church, for “extravagant welcome” is one of our principle articles of faith. But I knew there was a side door that led to the chapel, so off I went and arrived in time to see a few other souls ready to enter. The rector, who is a friendly and gracious priest, came sweeping in, welcomed us and beckoned us to the chapel.
The familiar liturgy really moved me, and, since my own sense of sin may well be my keenest spiritual faculty, I found myself very emotionally involved in the service. And, not to put too fine a point on it in a public blog, I have of late been even less where I would like to be in my long and sometimes stormy relationship with God than usual, so I was feeling properly penitent and truly glad to hear the good news of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
The rector nicely explained Ash Wednesday, and how they had, on the previous evening, made the ashes for the service from the Palms from last year’s Palm Sunday. Then we went forward to get our ashes and I dutifully fell in line with the faithful. When my turn came the priest put ashes on my forehead and said “Rick, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Then she said to me, “Will you do me?” She handed me the little bowl, I dipped my finger in it, and repeated the words she had said to me, while I made the sign of the cross on her forehead.
I have been very involved in the ecumenical movement for most of the thirty-five years I have been ordained. It has fallen on hard times of late, sad to say. But I was profoundly moved by my colleague’s recognition of me as a fellow minister of Jesus Christ. Another priest friend of mine, Jane, did this years ago, so I have imposed ashes exactly twice in my life. Both times the gesture was humbling and wonderful. God can use such small acts of grace to strengthen the unity of his church, a unity that we have already been given in Christ, but that we cannot see because of our sin.
Then I went snowshoeing. But first I e-mailed and called every retired and unemployed outdoor type I knew, but as in one of our Lord’s parables, they all had other plans.
So I went alone, which I never do, since I have a brain injury and sometimes fall, although I have poles so usually it’s just my pride that gets hurt. But I decided to do it anyway today, and I had my cell-phone if I needed help. So I headed up the glorious white hill at the Pittsfield State Forest and broke fresh snow on one of my favorite trails. It was beautiful there.
I had labored about half an hour, and suddenly there appeared two relatively new friends of mine out of the blue. The last person I had called before I left was my neighbor, who couldn’t go with me because of an appointment. I had told her that I didn’t hike alone, but was going to try it today. She mentioned that these same two good friends of hers might be at the State Forest today and I should look for them. But, in truth, they had found me only because she had called them after I talked to her, and they were all looking out for me. We had a vigorous hike uphill and back down and a most pleasant conversation. It was lovely.
Such were the quotidian graces of my Ash Wednesday, for which I am most grateful.