Thoughts on Ash Wednesday

I was one of the priests administering ashes today in chapel at the school. I also gave out the bread at communion. I will be doing the same in a local parish tonight. There are things that I do in the priesthood that routinely break my heart. Person after person comes and quietly submits to having ashes imposed on their forehead and takes away with them these words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It seems to me that each person comes wrapped in their own death, in the mortality we all bear and we choose at least in this moment not to flee and wrapped also in the dying that is unique to their particular life. It is part of pastoral ministry even in a school that you inevitably know something of the particular dying each person brings. Each one brings perhaps a long struggle with a chronic illness, a losing battle with persistent depression, a sick child, the recent loss of a parent, the shame of constant defeat in the battle with a besetting sin. I don’t know the whole story but enough of each one that my heart is pierced through with the beauty of their faithful burden-bearing and their hope that Christ will touch, forgive and heal. I have much the same perception and the same feeling each time I administer the bread and wine at Holy Communion.

I have become more and more suspicious of the concept of the nominal Christian. Our parish churches are supposed to be full of nominal Christians who are just going through the motions, of half-believers who are relying on their good works and who have not really surrendered to Christ and accepted the Gospel. In any parish church there are a few real apostates, and a few real scoffers and perhaps a few who genuinely hate God. Their numbers are routinely exaggerated. Most of the people who come to the church Sunday by Sunday know they are dying and are placing their hope in Christ. It may be an inarticulate hope, it may be a confused hope. Often there are huge brambles of misunderstanding that must be cleared away before the whole power of the good news can come in upon them. Often there is real darkness into which the light of Christ has not yet come and which cries out for a light-bearer. Yet, they come. When Jesus saw such as these gathered in their multitudes on the hill side, the sight provoked in him not contempt for the nominal but compassion, “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

I give thanks to God for those who come to have ashes put on their foreheads today even if they don’t really know why they come, even if they cannot give an account of the hope that is in them. I give thanks to God who in Christ draws all people to himself and for his drawing power in the liturgy of the church and I pray for the grace to communicate the living Christ to hearts and minds as I put the living bread in outstretched hands.

14 thoughts on “Thoughts on Ash Wednesday

  1. a truely, and I mean this in the best and fullest sense I can, catholic sensibility. A very humbling and welcome reminder of the power and the love of Christ, of which we are only unworthy ministers.
    A good corrective to my deep puritan streak.
    Thank you
    btw: my access code for this comment is (I am not making this up)
    “13 curse”
    what kind of a website you running over there? 🙂

  2. Leander,

    The wisest and holiest priest I ever knew once told me, when I was busy judging another’s behavior and parsing his sincere commitment to the faith, that “Sometimes it takes an act of heroism just to get up in the morning”. Thank you for reminding us that “nominal” Christians may lead lives that might put us righteous ones to shame.

  3. Thanks for the kind words. Eric, the process is automated by WordPress but it does bring into question the whole concept of the inanimate object.

  4. Leander, this is wonderful. Your comment about so-called nominal Christians is right on. I have been thinking a lot about the talk, so popular these days, about “discipleship,” a term not actually found in the Bible. There is a tendency to distinguish between “real” disciples and everybody else warming the pews. This seems unbelievably contemptuous and presumes an ability to judge rightly the hearts, motives, and thoughts of churchgoers. I, for one, am glad when anyone comes to church at all, and if they continue to come, praise God!

  5. Our egalitarian cultural notions have cost us the old language of “elders” and even “Father.” It was understood for a long time that congregations would be full of people in different stages of spiritual development – some “weak”, some babies, some healthy, some sick… but that there should be mature leaders and teachers in the faith.

    How awful that so many underdeveloped, immature people fill our pulpits and stand at our altars. Too many come to the ordained ministry trying to discover a spiritual life, rather than having developed a life worth sharing. Don’t look to the pews for the “problem” of nominal Christians. If we are doing well, the pews should have “all sorts and conditions.” But look critically toward the pulpit and altar…

  6. Dear Fr. Harding,
    This is off-topic, I fear, but I wasn’t able to find your e-mail address, so am contacting you via your blog’s “leave a reply” option. Apologies for the jolting incongruity.
    I just ran across William Witt’s reference to research you’ve done on Anglican theological literature across the twentieth century. Would you be willing to discuss your research w/ me off-list? (It could prove helpful in my research on 20th-c English cathedral music). My e-mail address: jpauley@csbsju.edu
    pax et bonum,
    Br. John-Bede Pauley OSB

  7. “It is part of pastoral ministry even in a school that you inevitably know something of the particular dying each person brings. Each one brings perhaps a long struggle with a chronic illness, a losing battle with persistent depression, a sick child, the recent loss of a parent, the shame of constant defeat in the battle with a besetting sin.” As a Hospice Chaplain, I understand the feeling of seeing someone, getting to know the dying person, realizing your/my own mortality especially when the person is my generation. It is even harder when the person is younger and the pain seems deeper and more draining. I carried ashes with me in case was requested to impose, but I think, thankfully wasn’t.
    Thanks for what you said.

    In Christ,

    Ed Langley

  8. This was a wonderful post, Father Harding, and I am sorry that I missed it during Lent. Many of us would benefit (myself foremost) if we considered ourselves to be “nominal Christians” before we thought to apply the label to anyone else (Matthew 7:4-5 and all that!).

  9. Not having an Anglican parish choice, we’ve ended up for the moment in a Presbyterian church; so just a comment from outside… Here it seems that everyone is quite enthusiastic about Jesus and the gospel. They are taught the truth and from discussion with each, believe it whole heartedly. All worship most enthusiastically. The preaching is straight biblical, the missions include everyone and are enthusiastically carried out, and the pains of life often shared for common support. I wish nominal Christians could be directed to a believing church where the body builds everyone up and Jesus’ love and truth might just end their nominalism.

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