As I rode King County Metro buses today, I experienced, as I do every year on Ash Wednesday, a mixture of responses.
The lapsed Catholics and Episcopalians look a little panicked and furtively ask where I received my ashes–for them, I make it a point of knowing a few churches of various traditions holding evening services for the imposition of ashes.
Then there’s the number of curious stares I get from those too Seattle to ask the question out loud. But they lean in to hear as I answer the question from someone a little more forward.
The question is always some variation of, “I know it’s Ash Wednesday, but what are the ashes for?”–though the conversation can also start with this question: “Um, do you know you have something on your forehead?”
And in response, I am always a little hesitant. I have answers. Oh yes, I have answers, multiple religious degrees worth. But the question also invites me to hold this strange practice with a little curiosity as well. And I wonder, is it what or who? That is, who are the ashes for?
Why is it that we Christians remind ourselves of death? How does penance prepare us for the unsuspected turn of crucifixion and resurrection?
The words I try to offer strangers on buses slide past lips that tremble to speak such truths. “It reminds us that we are connected to the world–ashes mark our bodies in the cycle of death and life–it shows us our place; our smallness and belonging in the world.” I do not expect that these words make much sense to those who do not find meaning in the strange shape of this faith.
But I also do not see it as necessary to explain these strange tracks of burnt palm and oil that streak our heads. It is enough that our strangeness invites a sense of wonder. The action of remembering is, itself, enough gospel uttered in the world.
This action of ash marked bodies moving on buses around the world is movement enough–sacramental, liturgical actions; bodies in prayer, naming the holiness of bodies, moving in and through and as small parts of the whole.
During the season of Lent, I have been invited to pray with my body; to shape space and play, as I point towards the holy mysteries of whole bodies transforming and becoming whole. For 5 sundays my art will be offered to the community of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where I regularly worship, and where I have been asked to work as artist in residence during this season.
Each week, I’ll install an interactive bit of art in the worship space of the 5pm Sunday liturgy. And across those weeks, a cumulative piece will also emerge (I’m being mysterious, because I want you to puzzle it out with me throughout the project).
The theme is “Becoming Whole,” and I’ll be posting a short video each week on Monday or Tuesday, following each week’s installment.
And I can hardly think of a better way to be spending Lent. If Ash Wednesday is a way of marking our finite belonging in the community of the world, the season of Lent is a dance of turning; a daily reminder to allow our bodies to move through the world, naming it as holy.
For some, Lent is a fast–linking our bodily hunger with our desire for connection with the God who enlivens the world. For others, it is repentance–turning our countenance to look away from ourselves and towards the community of God. And for all of us, it is invitation, to lean into mystery and be drawn toward the waxing moon of resurrection.
To kick things off, here’s my song for Ash Wednesday: