Such a Stirring, Suggestive Smudge

In this year of grace 2012, given all the effort that the English-speaking Church is currently expending upon the words that we use in the liturgy, it is a comfort to come to a day that almost preaches and prays itself. Granted, we still have to battle our way through the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. But...think of the poor souls who haven’t been in church since the First Sunday of Advent! How will it be with their spirits when the Consubstantial Lord seeks to come under their roofs?

Why are churches filled today? Why is it that young people, who often complain that Church is boring, pack the pews today? How do busy business people find time today for a visit to church? Why do so many Churches of the Reformation, the same ones who once eschewed empty rituals, hasten to imitate the Church of Rome today? (Indeed, on the level of words alone, we, and our Protestant fellows, appear to be contradicting the very command of the Gospel. We’re letting everyone on the street know that a season of fasting and prayer has begun.) In these days of Botox and skin peels, of self-presentation and packaging, putting a blot on the brow is ironically quite popular. Last year on Connecticut’s Gold Coast, I heard a woman berate a parochial vicar because her blotch wasn’t big enough. Why? Why is this day so grounded in our psyches?

Perhaps because today the words of the liturgy pale in comparison to the actions. It’s such a stirring, suggestive smudge. Receiving ashes reveals the sheer genius of the Roman Rite, like waving palms, making the Sign of the Cross, or genuflecting. It’s so self-explanatory. Words aren’t needed, though the few that we have are succinctly potent, and they haven’t changed all that much with the Third Edition of the Roman Missal.

As we leave Church, we can’t see the smudge on our foreheads, and it won’t last through much of Lent. And the Reformation was right. Ritual can be empty. That’s why we should rehearse again and again — silently to ourselves — the simple words we hear today: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Terrance W. Klein

Rick Malloy
5 years ago
Amen!  Thank you Terrance.

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