On her blog, a friend of mine was reflecting on a recent experience in a grocery store when she ran across a woman who had ash on her forehead. In her post, she admitted that she has never participated in such rituals and that she’s not Catholic, etc.. Interestingly, though, she also admitted that part of her wanted to participate in this ritual.
This came as no surprise to me because I think it’s something all Christians long for. One of the tragic consequences of much mainline evangelicalism in America is its sad repudiation of the traditions that the catholic (lower case) church has acquired throughout its history. This anti-institutionalism is a hallmark of far too much pop-”spirituality” and not enough Word.
Every day, I am becoming more and more of a Eugene Peterson fan. In his book, The Jesus Way, he points out the fact that when Jesus said “follow me,” he led his followers into the two main institutional structures of his day: the synagogue and the temple. Neither was without its faults, shortcomings, and unlovable people. And while there was also much pomp and circumstance associated with things like Herod’s temple, Jesus remained unimpressed. But neither did he boycott the place.
“We sometimes say, thoughtlessly I think, that the church is not a building. It’s people. I’m not so sure. Synagogues and temples, cathedrals, chapels, and storefront meeting halls provide continuity in place and community for Jesus to work his will among his people. A place, a building, collects stories and develops associations that give local depth and breadth and continuity to our experience of following Jesus. We must not try to be more spiritual than Jesus in this business. Following Jesus means following him into sacred buildings that have a lot of sinners in them, some of them very conspicuous sinners. Jesus doesn’t mind . . .
“. . . A spirituality that has no institutional structure or support very soon becomes self-indulgent and subjective and one-generational . . .
“. . . Religious institutions are to the spiritual life what bark is to the cambium. What you see is dead bark but the dead bark protects the life. The more intimate and personal an activity is – sex or meals, for instance – the more likely we are to develop rituals and conventions to protect it from profanation or disease or destruction. The most intimate, personal, and intensely alive of all human activities is the life of the spirit, our worship and prayer and meditation, believing and obeying. But without the protection of ritual and doctrine and authority, Christian spirituality is vulnerable to reduction and desecration. It is also important to note that while the bark both hides and protects the cambium, it does not create it. The bark is dead. And neither do religious institutions create life – the life comes from invisibilities below and above, soil and air, all the operations of the Trinity.”
The part of my friend that longed to participate in Ash Wednesday is the part of her that recognizes something sacred about a tradition that fosters consciousness of the gospel’s present and future reality. As a friend of mine says, this reflects a desire to respond as a community to a sacred season that recognizes that something bigger than themselves is going on. The ash on that woman’s head serves to remind her of her mortality, from ash she came and to ash she will return. But it also serves to remind her that this is the necessary precursor to what Lent celebrates in its culmination, Easter: the resurrection. As Tertullian said, “The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live” (De res. 1.1: PL 2, 841).
When we participate in festivals and traditions that have a long, rich history in Christian devotion, we connect ourselves to the brothers and sisters that have gone before us. We also connect ourselves to those who will come after us, when we return to dust. But it all serves to remind us that the dust is not our final state. God will re-form that dust into what is imperishable and we will soon live the embodied form of which all our present institutional rites are but a shadow: a community of sinners redeemed and renewed according to the image of their Creator, as a covenant people of God.
While I remain a committed Protestant, I admire this much about Rome: they understand the importance of sacred symbols and rites that lead people into a sense of historicity and prevent them from ahistorical isolationism – a kind of spiritual solipsism. They believe feverishly in the importance of teaching and preserving doctrine and the faith delivered once for all to the saints. While we can disagree about some of the finer details of these matters (some of which are drastically different), we can agree that neither religion, doctrine, or authority are unimportant.
We should never seek to live by religion, but neither should we seek to live without it. I think this much is clear in Jesus’ teaching.