As I sit in the car at 6:30am, 14 degrees, looking at the snow covered fields where only yesterday there were some one hundred Canadian Geese enjoying the sunlight, the opening bars of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 begin yet another Ash Wednesday morning. It always strikes me as what it must sound like in a German forest as the sun rises and creatures great and small begin to stir. I pull out into the road and as I make my way around the second of two bends in the road I look out over a pink and grey sunrise over the fields on either side of the road which usually yield acres of corn or soybeans in rotation, a symphony of photosynthesis grinding out ears of corn and beans year after year. It is still. It is beautiful, and Mahler captures the mood once again.
For as many years as I can remember my Lenten discipline is to forego talk radio, yes, even NPR, and listen to nothing but classical music in the car for these forty days, beginning with the ten symphonies of Mahler and working my way around to Copeland, Dvorak, Panufnik, and always ending up with Penderecki’s St. Luke’s Passion in Holy Week. Ash Wednesday begins a long musical meditation. Music is mysterious. It reaches deeper into the human soul and psyche than any words can hope to.
Ash Wednesday is a time to reflect, and what better way to reflect than with wordless music? Music of infinite and timeless vibrations stirring memories of Ash Wednesdays past - the morning after many a Mardi Gras celebration signaling a farewell to Alleluias and the invitation to a Holy Lent. Some beads and candy left on the sanctuary floor, echoes of A Closer Walk with Thee still stirring in the rafters, and a quiet 7am crowd of the usual suspects who also choose to begin their Ash Wednesday near the crack of dawn with confessions, ashes, communion on the way to work, to school, to wherever the Spirit sends us to witness to the power of ash, the power of dust. Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.
Today the morning Baltimore Sun proclaims that Episcopal clergy will fan out across the diocese offering ashes to go to any and all passersby. 21st Century evangelism. Tailgate Eucharists, ashes at the train station as they pass Charlie a sandwich through the open window as the train goes rumbling through. A fair enough idea I suppose, yet it strikes one as somewhat disembodied. Disembodied from the tender vision of the prophet Joel imagining the people weary, disheartened, unable to make an offering to our God, the God of Exodus and Resurrection himself , Joel wonders, might “turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord.” A God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” who invites us to return, to repent, to come home to the heart of God’s love. (Joel 2: 13-14).
How can it be Ash Wednesday with ashes somehow disembodied from such a vision, such an invitation, such love? Disembodied from the Litany of Penitence, perhaps the most thorough accounting of our sins of commission and omission (BCP 267-269). “We have not loved you with our whole heart....We have been deaf to your call...We have grieved your Holy Spirit....For all false judgments....for our waste and pollution of your creation....Restore us, Good Lord....”
As Mahler 1 moves into its haunting third movement on minor themes of Bruder Martin/Frere Jacques with sprinklings of Jewish dance music calling to mind the stirring spirituality of great Hasidic masters like the Baal Shem Tov and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov I find myself wondering just when has the church relented, repented of such sins that required Mahler to become Christian before he could assume the baton of the
Vienna Hofoper - Mahler who to pursue his career as perhaps one of the most celebrated conductors of opera, Mahler who had suffered from anti-Semitism, had to leave his Jewishness behind as it were to do what God had put him on this earth to do.
Perhaps that is why I begin Ash Wednesday with this third movement - as a form of penance on behalf of my church, my tradition, that has so much to answer for throughout the ages and only recently is willing to even confront with any degree of honesty and shame. But a careful listening to Mahler’s music reveals the church’s folly. His Jewishness, his Jewish soul could not be left behind whatever the demands to do so for professional reasons may have been.
Ashes the reduced remains of last year’s palms, palms that heralded another bittersweet passion as Jesus entered Jerusalem for what would be the last time. Each year I would marvel at just how-white hot palms become when burned for the ashes of Ash Wednesday. A most vehement flame as the Song of Songs would have it. Many waters cannot quench such a flame, cannot quench such steadfast, gracious and merciful love as that of Israel for her God and YHWH for Israel and all people, as in “all” people.
I recall a four year-old girl at the communion rail with her mother recoiling from the imposition of ashes and thinking, she understands. She gets it. These ashes into which the God of creation breathes his Spirit, his breath, his ruach, also mark the sign of our own mortality. A mortality that is at once aligned with the eternal love of the God of Joel, the God of the Song of Songs, the God who creates the music of the universe, the vibrations that make it all work, make it possible for us to see the sunrise, to hear the opening notes of Mahler on a bitter cold Wednesday morning looking out at snow-covered fields where only yesterday a hundred Canada Geese were sitting, preening, luxuriating in the bright sunshine as it reflects off the snow the light of that first light, that first burst of light that signals the beginning of it all, of this all, of all in all, the light that shines through the darkness, 13.7 billion years of darkness to shine on those itinerant birds, on the snow, on you, on me, on us, a light that continues to shine shine shine, a light that the darkness has not overcome, starlight, star bright, starlight whose very dust makes up the composition of my very body, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. My God, it is good, it is very good this dust into which you breathe the very Spirit of your life into each and every thing that has life, that reflects your light, that shines in and through all darkness. Yes, this four year-old girl sensed all of that and more and had the good sense to step back and look with a mixture of wonder and fear as her mother places a reassuring hand on her shoulder, as her mother has the ash placed on her own forehead wondering if her daughter’s response is not perhaps more appropriate than her own. But then, it is Ash Wednesday, Mahler 1 continues to play, creatures begin to stir in the woods, the sun continues to shine, and for another day perhaps we can imagine God himself leaving the offering we are too weary and too busy to leave, making the sacrifice on our behalf which we are unable to make ourselves. We can only hope it is so, but hoping will be enough. Today, Ash Wednesday, such hope is enough to get us through another day. Perhaps all this somehow makes itself evident on the train platform. Perhaps we will never know......