Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ashes Wednesday

Some unexpected friends (of friends) from Germany dropped by the convent a couple of weeks ago. They were visiting New York City and came bearing a gift... chocolates from Switzerland. As they presented them, they explained: "We were told that you keep something called Ashes Wednesday, and we must bring these right away, so that you consume them before that day."

When I repeated what he had said, we chuckled, but he was absolutely correct, of course. On this day we impose ashes on each other's foreheads... we do not impose one ash. We say: remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Dust is the comglomeration of a myriad of tiny particles, not just one. I naturally love to focus on my self, my own uniqueness and individuality. The idea that I can be lumped together with a million others diminishes my importance, at least in my own eyes. Yet God does not see as I see. God will not be contained in my limited selfish concept of who He/She is. I diminish myself by insisting on my own viewpoint, my own importance. For me, that is the message of Lent.

He was also correct that one of the things we give up corporately (as a group) is chocolates, or more specifically sweets... candy, cookies, desserts in general. Lent for us is a time of fasting. Our meals become simpler, our house moves into a deeper silence. We fast, not just from rich foods and pleasures, but from noise and meaningless chatter. There is no TV, the normal diversions are stripped away. It is not an easy time for many of us, because we chafe at the arbitrary way in which these things can be decided. "Because we've always done it that way" takes on a holy reference, and as irritating or amusing as it sounds at other times, it makes perfect sense during Lent.

Lent is not about me, it is about us. And it is about us in the broadest and deepest sense... Us as insignificant and indistinguishable as dust... yet as necessary to God as God is to us.


Anonymous said...

You mean to tell us that these people from Germany had never heard of this liturgical observance before? Honestly, Claire...

Claire Joy said...

No, I don't mean to tell you anything of the sort. They may have known about it or not. The chuckle-turned-inspiration came from the mistranslation from English to German to English of ashes as opposed to ash.

However, why would it be so surprising that there are people from other faith traditions who have never heard of Ash Wednesday or Lent? I had never heard of Ramadan... also a time of fasting for Muslims, also with roots to words that mean hot ashes or embers.