This past week I led my first Ash Wednesday chapel at Oregon Episcopal School for approximately 300 elementary school-age kids, their teachers, and a handful of parents and other OES employees. It was a fairly joyful gathering as Ash Wednesday services go–there was much singing and laughter along with hundreds of brightly-colored alleluia sheets being stuffed into a basket that was then hoisted to the ceiling of the chapel by a beloved 1st grade teacher where the basket will stay until Easter. Even the ashes were an object of happy curiosity. Completely voluntary, most children chose to receive the ashes or a blessing. But first they wanted to see the ashes in the dish. They wanted to know what it would feel like for me to gently trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the ash, (“it’s like a butterfly wing brushing again your skin.”) After deciding to go ahead, one by one, I watched as these rambunctious and charming kiddoes grew suddenly quiet and watchful. They bowed their heads, many closed their eyes, and they took part in a ritual that goes back centuries. And, then, just as suddenly, they popped up and excitedly turned to their friends: “Can you see it? I can see yours!”
As chaplain, I loved seeing their openness and their curiosity to experiencing God in the moment. Likewise, it was a powerful thing to be reminded of all the tender ways all of us are part of this holy cycle of life.
Here are my remarks from the day’s gathering. The words of the closing blessing are also for you, Dear Reader. May this Lenten season be just what you need it to be.
Chapel Talk, 2/10/16
Many faith traditions set aside time for kids and grown-ups to wonder about life. To hit the pause button and ask: what’s keeping me from experiencing and loving God right now? What should I change?
In the Christian Church, this time for reflection and wondering is called the Season of Lent, and it begins today and lasts for 40 days until Easter.
One of the things we do in Chapel on Ash Wednesday is we put away our alleluias and we’re invited to come forward to receive a mark of ash on our foreheads in the sign of the cross.
The ashes are a reminder that sometimes in life we experience loss. We feel sad. Lonely. We hurt or are angry. During those times, it can hard to say happy, joyful words like alleluia. It can be hard to say any words at all.
During Lent, we put away our alleluias as a way of remembering the tough times. Christians remember stories about Jesus and the ways he didn’t forget people who were sad, lonely, hurting or angry. He walked with them and ate with them and prayed with them. He made sure that they knew they were loved by God and that they were not alone. He even experienced death so that he could feel people’s deepest pain and offer everyone healing and wholeness.
The ashes also remind us that each of us is part of the cycle of life. In the story of the “Garden of Eden” we heard last week, God tells Adam and Eve: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” We will hear these words again today and each Ash Wednesday as we re-enter that moment in the story.
There are sad parts in the story of life–but they are never the whole story and they are never the end of the story.
We are dust and to dust we shall return. But it is in the returning that we are welcomed home by a loving and forgiving God.
Easter will come and when it does, the basket brimming full of alleluias will be emptied. The words–praise to you, Lord–will be given back to us.
The past couple weeks, 5th graders have started exploring what it means to be awake and aware of the world around us. We’ve talked about the Greek philosopher Plato’s “Myth of the Cave” in which we hear an imaginary tale about a group of people who experience life only as shadows projected on a cave wall and hear strange sounds. They have chosen to stay in a distorted world and cannot live life fully. The students and I imagined what our own caves might look like–and talked about the things that keep us from experiencing reality.
We’ve also started exploring what religions such as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam have said about the importance of being awake to the reality around us. How another name for this Reality can be God.
Christians are not the only ones who believe that ashes are holy. Hindus and Sikhs, too, have special ceremonies that honor the dead and return their ashes to sacred waters. Some Native peoples have had sacred rituals for releasing the spirits of the dead through care of the body’s ashes. Though different from the Christian observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent, ashes have been a way for many people to affirm our place as human beings in the cycle of life.
When asked, our 5th graders had their own associations with ashes. Campfires and roasting marshmallows, fire, charcoal, volcanoes erupting, a phoenix rising from the ashes, and death.
Our 5th graders and some of our 4th graders have explored these ideas in art. You can see examples of their work in charcoal and colored pencil on paper during the the imposition of the ashes. You will also see images by other artists who have been inspired by these same stories. Artists who have asked some of the same questions: What is keeping me from experiencing God? What choices have I made that have caused others to feel pain, loneliness, anger and sadness? How are life and death connected? What will rise out of the ashes of my understanding?
Chaplain Jenny, Chaplain Craig, Mother Heather and I invite you now to come up, aisle by aisle, to receive these holy ashes or you may simply ask for a blessing. You are also welcome to stay right where you are, settle into stillness. Let the images wash over you. Be aware of what thoughts and feelings they stir wake inside of you.
A Blessing for Ash Wednesday
As we enter into the Season of Lent,
Remember that you are earth–rich loamy soil
just right for new seeds to sprout.
You are ash—the remnant of a crackling fire of
Love and Forgiveness that burns bright for all to see.
You are dust—released from the Big Bang billions of
years ago that eventually became the building blocks of all life.
And finally you are hope—for out of the dust comes new life.
In you, the story continues to unfold.
The Holy One is waiting for you.
What’s stopping you from joining Her?