also on episcopal cafe
My Lenten season this year began and ended with participation in displays of religion out in the streets. This is not my usual mode: I tend to be introverted, to value careful, one-on-one or small group conversations about faith as well as prayer and public worship . But when my parish decided to participate in the “Ashes to Go” movement to begin Lent, I decided to take a shift as a lay minister, offering “Drive –through Ashes” in front of our parish church which stands at the edge of a busy intersection. It seemed hokey – we held our “Ashes to Go” sign and waved it and to my amazement people pulled up to receive ashes. Mothers driving carpools (one came back three times so that each of her kids could receive ashes), people on cell phones, interrupting their calls just long enough to “receive a blessing.” People parking, getting out of their cars, and bowing their heads so that I could say the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and adding a prayer of blessing Why would people pull over to hear those apparently grim words? And yet over 150 people did that day. I’ve been mulling it over the whole 40 days – remembering the quiet, calm radiance on people’s faces as they heard those words about their mortality. But then I heard one of the people say into a cell phone.” Wait a minute: I have to stop and get my blessing.” And I realized that was what it was: people were experiencing our presence on that street corner as in some way a blessing – they may have been former churchgoers or unchurched, though probably with some kind of tradition of Ash Wednesday in their lives. Perhaps it was heard as blessing to have another human being say to you , “remember you are dust” – as we all are. And that’s OK: we don’t have to be more than human. We are who we are. And we are blessed.
Now I realize that for those of us committed to the life of the church Ash Wednesday means much more: that commitment to a season of penitence and self-examination is also profoundly an “insider” experience – perhaps not the first service you would take a seeker to visit. If we are already committed to the church, we are probably embracing the Lenten season as in some sense a blessing, if a hard one – as we do the rounds and cycles of the seasons that are the gift of the church year, and we each have our own ongoing struggles on the journey of faith. But for those outside, there was something about our presence, our availability to them, on Ash Wednesday, as Lent began, that seemed to speak. Somehow our presence communicated that they were welcome as they are. That we didn’t expect them to sign up or join. That God’s blessing is available, and that we were hoping it could come to them through us.
I ended Lent in Paris, where we happened to be traveling on Palm Sunday weekend, and I was delighted to join the procession of the American Episcopal Cathedral up the Avenue Georges V, near the Champs Elysees and in sight of the Eiffel tower. It was a lively, vibrant congregation from what I could observe – a number of younger adults, young families – most of them American or British expats. I felt thoroughly at home. We went up the street with red-veiled crosses, vestments and palms to the accompaniment of African drums. This was in Paris, where people are mostly pretty amazed that anyone practices any religion any more – probably we were seen as an American expat curiosity, but there were cameras, and delight, and a sense of holiday as we went by – again, in our way, we were a blessing to people’s Sunday morning in Paris, as we moved into our own more serious observance of Passiontide.
As I watched people in cafes snapping pictures of us I thought about what these public ceremonies might say about our continuing presence as Christians in an increasingly “post-Christian” culture. Is there a call to be in the midst of a world that is no longer culturally Christian, and claim that original call to Abraham, the call to “be a blessing” to the world, by our presence and our practice, and to cultivate a way of living that might “preach” in its own way? For us on Ash Wednesday, and on Palm Sunday, it was theater, and it wasn’t: we were out in the streets because of the importance of the season and the observance to us, and because of a desire to share, not so much the doctrine of it, as the blessing of it (One friend with whom I talked this over recalled the Celtic priests whose practice was to simply bless everything that they encountered in the pagan cultures they encountered: blessing wells and fountains, animals and families – whoever asked for a blessing – because that was what they did, as Christians).
As we walked up the Avenue Georges VI I also had a flashback to an earlier “street theater” experience from my young adulthood – the All Saints Day processions around the Yale campus in the late 1970s, when Rick Fabian and Don Schell, well known now for such fresh liturgical expressions, were chaplains at the Episcopal Church at Yale. On Halloween night the community would process around campus blessing various buildings and spots, following ancient liturgical forms, chanting, with incense and vestments. Members of the Yale community were following in our train, in Halloween costumes and to the tune of bagpipes, and it all had very much the feel of a medieval street festival in the heart of Christendom and yet this was a very decidedly post-Christian campus community, and I expect very few of those following thought that we were anything but part of the show. But at one point in the procession, as we paused for prayer, I overheard one onlooker, observing us at prayer, say to his friend in some amazement: “You know, I think these people are serious!”
And what if we are serious? A serious blessing. In all three of these examples, there was a sense of tremendous joy, presence and simple blessing. The church succeeded in simply being present in the world, and visible to those who might wonder what it might be like to be as “serious’ and joyful as we were about the blessing we carried. I believe that in our post-Christian era we’re likely to see more of these public liturgical expressions of faithfulness in community – and maybe it will invite folks to seek a blessing, and to wonder what it would be like to part of a community so joyful and so “serious” about our public presence and prayers It’s a hope, at least: appropriate for us in this season as in the one just past, as we aspire to be an “Easter people”.