My memory of that early morning Ash Wednesday service is one of an embodied kind of pain. It is the kind of pain that I remember feeling deep within my bones. I looked at the faces of the gathered community and saw the shock, horror and disgust with the so-called “proclamation.” We gathered as an ecumenical group, attempting to bridge not just denominational divides, but political and social divides. We gathered as an ecumenical community to say that evangelicals, “high church” folks, “low-church” folks, main-line, emergent , traditional and modern Christian could celebrate the season of Lent. A visiting Anglican Bishop from Uganda shattered the trust that we as a diverse and often disagreeing community had pieced together over nearly a year of shared worship. He disregarded the history of God who moves toward us in love, who seeks to make the Godself known to all regardless. He ignored the holiness of the season of Lent, using his invitation to preach as a bully pulpit to articulate a political and theological message of hate and exclusion. Never have I felt such collective pain embodied in the these muscles, down cast eyes and utter brokenness as I saw that morning. I couldn’t look the priest who gave me ashes in the eyes. I felt used, violated, victimized. I felt that the Church, the precious Body of Christ, had, too, been violated, blemished, debased with these arrogant and unloving words.
But that was last year, 2011. That was England. This year was different. This year, I watched as a university chapel filled with Christians of all flavors, all socio-economic class and all stages of life. From protestant professors and their wiggling children, to nervous students who hadn’t been to chapel since Christmas, to tired-looking staff members we sat together as four ministers representing different traditions celebrated the beginning of Lent.
Susan Henry-Crow, the Dean of the Chapel at Emory and a United Methodist minister, president over the imposition of Ashes. Father Natal, the campus Catholic Priest, gave the homily. Mother Mandy, an Episcopal Priest and campus chaplain, proclaimed the gospel. And, Rev Saul Burleson, a Cooperative Baptist minister, helped ash the students. Together, across wide traditions, we collected ourselves to celebrate this new liturgical season. I sat next to a Methodist from Denmark, who had only celebrated Ashe Wednesday once before. This holy, whole, peaceful celebration was the exact opposite of the shaming, hurtful, broken ritual that I had participated in the year before. This space was the diverse, yet united Body of Christ. It didn’t seek to make us the same, but to bridge the spaces of difference to celebrate God’s enduring love.
My journey as a Christian, and more so as a seminarian, has been tides of unity and brokenness. I have seen the joy of the Church together. And, I have felt the painful fractures of the Church apart. In the face of division in my denomination, my Presbytery, my community, I pray that this season of Lent is a season of unity and celebration of diversity.