The following are excerpts from an Ash Wednesday service held in the Eden Theological Seminary Chapel on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. The worship service focused on reversing our associations of darkness with sin and whiteness with purity. Worship included an opening gathering with scripture and a brief sermon, then a period in which participants could choose from among a number of prayer stations, followed by re-gathering for Holy Communion.
God of the universe,
Maker of rich, dark earth,
black forest fire ash,
and deep, moonless, starlit summer nights,
we come to the doorstep of Lent
longing for an invitation, a beckoning:
open arms that will gather all our pieces
and call us beloved.
In these few minutes,
here in this place where so many faithful have gathered,
ground us in your word,
in each other,
and in the dark beauty of mystery
that is your subtle, saving grace.
We pray this in the name of the one
whose gentle, brown-skinned hands
still reached out
even after they had been pierced.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Invitation to Prayer Stations: The Pallor of Sin
Blessed be God, who has created us from the rich, dark earth, and in whom all things are connected.
In a few moments we’re going to invite you to visit the various prayer stations in this room, if you feel like it. Before that, or as a way of preparing, I’d like to invite you to consider Lent, and its gifts, as a movement away from lighter shades of being, moving toward darkness.
The season of Lent is often associated with repentance, just a small part of the preparation for Baptism that has given the season much of its structure and tone. Repentance as a theological theme and a mode of piety often places us on a journey from darkness to light, where we are moving away from the dark brokenness of sin, and toward the whiteness of purity and heavenly light.
But I’ve been struck recently by the ways that brokenness and alienation often have a certain pallor to them. There is a paleness, even a whiteness to sin that we often overlook. For those of us who have lighter skin, sickness often brings paleness, while health brings our color back. For those of us with darker skin, ill health, or even dry skin can bring with it an ashy color, sometimes even a white cast, like frost, to our appearance, but healing, or lotion, can bring back our rich, dark color. When you cut off the blood flow to a finger or a foot, it grows pale, or ashen, but when the flow of blood is restored, the color returns.
In the scripture passage for today, Jesus uses whiteness as a way of describing the hypocrisy of people who act like they are generous, and compassionate, and centered in God, but who are only playing at it. The whitewashed grave tries to be an outward sign of purity, but ends up being a sign of weakness and dishonesty, brokenness and falsehood.
I think of Gahazi, the servant of Elijah, who couldn’t help being greedy and taking payment from Namaan after the ruler was cured of leprosy. Do you remember that story? He was caught by Elija, who said, “Where have you been?” Gahazi said, “Nowhere.” Elijah said, “Don’t you know that my spirit went with you, as you were accepting horses, and money…and slaves?” “Therefore,” said Elijah, “the leprosy of Namaan will cling to you,” and the text says he went away leprous, “as white as snow.”
There are ways in which it makes sense to consider brokenness and sin as pallor, as paleness, and wholeness and healing as deep, rich, color.
So, I’d like to invite you on a different journey as we begin the Lenten season, one in which the journey is back toward wholeness, and connectedness, and dark, rich tones. If you choose to receive the imposition of ashes, I invite you consider their blackness less as a sign of death or sin, and more as a sign of the dark earth from which you are formed, and to which you are connected. I invite you to consider the ashes as a sign of re-connection with God and all things. A sign of life.
We are also offering glitter ashes — ashes mixed with purple glitter — as an option. These are offered at the request of Eden alum Marian Edmonds at Parity, a faith-based organization supporting the LGBTQIA+ community. You might consider how glitter ashes have their own dark beauty.
There are a number of options in the room. You probably won’t get to all of them before the choir sings and we gather for Holy Communion, but you’re welcome to stay after chapel and experience other stations if you want. (Describe stations)
Station 1: Dark Beauty
A small theater of chairs is set up in front of a large screen TV. A Power P0int plays about 15 images in a continuous loop. The images included a variety of dark, beautiful images: chocolate, rich soil, people, and more. A sign says:
Watch and consider the images here.
What if sometimes brokenness
is pale and anemic,
while wholeness, sacredness is dark?
Meditate or Pray,
focusing your intention
upon the blessed darkness of the Divine,
upon groundedness and connection,
upon your return
to the deep heart of things.
Station 2: Confession and Assurance
A baptismal font is surrounded by a half circle of chairs.
Take a moment just to sit.
Allow the busyness of your brain to settle.
Find your breath.
Consider your own dark places.
Not only your hidden places of old grief and regret,
not only your secret places of anger and pain,
but also the dark, life-giving places in you,
the deep, creative places,
the subterranean caverns filled with treasure.
Touch the water.
Put it on your forehead, or the back of your hand.
Make the sign of the cross, or the fish, or the Chi Ro.
Remember your baptism.
Be assured that God’s grace is for you.
Give thanks and consider how God’s steadfast love
can help you to move toward what is next.
Station 3: Labyrinth
(A large canvas labyrinth is placed in the center of the room.)
Walk slowly inward.
Befriend the dark, inward parts,
the interior rooms of your heart.
Move toward all that is holy
in the dark center.
Pause at the center.
Rest for a moment in stillness.
Close your eyes and let the blackness embrace you.
Sense the nearness of God.
Meditate or pray.
Walk slowly outward.
Carry the deep gifts of your inner sanctuary
out toward the world, toward others.
Station 4: Prayers of Intercession
A table of small, unlit candles, with a central lit candle. Note: in retrospect we realized that this station should have made space for intercession that did not move toward light. Perhaps each prayer puts some soil around the roots of a plant? Or we extinguish a light, moving away from the burning of pain and the glare of shame?
Take a moment.
Reconnect with your life, with the world.
Choose something or someone you want to pray for.
Light a candle.
Use one of the wooden sticks.
Then, take a moment just to look at the flame.
Say a prayer.
Pray for your chosen person or situation.
Join in God’s care, which is already happening.
Station 5: Drawing Meditation
Consider the beauty of dark things.
What drawing might come out of your hand?
What would express the blessed darkness
in your life, or our world?
Draw to re-connect.
It’s okay. It’s more process than product.
Meditate, as you draw,
on re-connection, reconciliation, reparation.
Take your picture with you,
or leave it for others to experience.
Let it be a reminder
during this season of Lent.
photo: Joke van Niekerk on Flickr. Creative Commons license.