I remember the experience as if it was yesterday. I remember the eyes of yearning on some, the eyes of hope and contrition mixed in others. Even the bombastic captain came humbly to receive the symbol of repentance, salvation, forgiveness, and eternity that were present in that small ashen symbol of the cross placed on their foreheads. No one checked the denomination of the chaplains/priests/ministers leading the service. No one tested the faith or doctrine of participants. They were united in a common passion to come before God with humble hearts, ignoring rank, status, or nationality that are so glaring most other days on this tanker of twentyone international seafarers. All forgot about their differences, even hostilities, that too often arose on the difficult journey from Egypt to Portsmouth, NH. The anger that was expressed after months in confined space (a ship) often experiencing the harshness of the captain’s prejudices and outbursts was behind them. It was Ash Wednesday, and they came before God uniquely united in their recognition of themselves, people in need of a reminder of their forgiving and loving Savior.
As the new leader of a ministry to seafarers, it was the first giving of ashes I had led. It was also the first time I donned my newly purchased priestly collar, convinced weeks before of its value as a uniform universally recognized throughout the maritime world. In my first crossing of ashes on the forehead of people I just met moments ago, seafarers who came before me with a Godly humility, I experienced a momentary bond between us, a bond of common faith in Christ and desire to experience His assurance. I wonder if the same awe was present when God spoke to Moses in Exodus :5, “…The place you are standing is holy ground.” Here on a ship we were briefly united in Christ, sharing a common sense of our need for repentance, our human limitations in the presence of a holy God, our unity in faith.
Last week the Upper School Ash Wednesday Chapel provided a similar experience. Some students said it was one of the more powerful chapel experiences they have had. No one was Catholic or Protestant. Ash Wednesday is one liturgical expression held in common by most denominations though they may observe it in various ways. My religious background seldom did more than mention the day and held no special service, usually observing Lent the same way as Advent. Catholics I felt strongly about attending Mass and receiving ashes, even though it was not a day of obligation. To all, it was opportunity to remember and repent.
Planning UCA's chapel provided many discussions about the fact it had not been done together in recent memory. Some wondered if observing Ash Wednesday in Christian unity would unite or divide; open students to God’s call or leave some unsettled. True to the vision of our forefathers at UCA we decided there were no theological barriers in history to stop us. Most branches of Christian faith are open to the experience, and coming together in repentance before God is important as we remember who we are and Whose we are, together. Perhaps that is why the service had such power.
Though Lent or Ash Wednesday may not be in the Bible, an eighth century monk may have begun the observance by saying, “Now let us at the beginning of our Lent strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.” Penitence is the focus of the season before Lent, often linked by Christians to the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). This was a chance to acknowledge our humanness, our mutual tendency to fail God, fail ourselves, and fail one another. Broken relationships, failed marriages, hurt feelings, and even our contentious political arena are testaments to our falling short of God’s intentions. The need for repentance in the eyes of a just and mighty God is the great equalizer for all, the common denominator of every Christian no matter what denomination. And the forgiveness of our loving God revealed in Christ is certainly the foundation of the unity of which Jesus prayed in Gethsemane (John 17).
The powerful presence of God experienced at UCA this past Ash Wednesday certainly is reason for reflection, and reason to thank God for His gift of forgiveness. It is a fitting way to begin a season in which Christians live through the Easter story. It is also a reason to rejoice in this grand experiment of united Christian education God initiated at UCA.
Rev. J. Loring Carpenter, Interim Head of School