Amy and I are editing the chapters for our new book on Episcopal worship. It is a collection of personal essays on the experience of common prayer by Episcopal writers, theologians, and artists. They are beautiful, profound, and inspiring. We can’t wait until others get a chance to read these wonderful essays too.
Amy and I are each contributing a chapter as well. Here’s an excerpt from mine. It’s about how worship saved my marriage.
Amy and I are both priests. We regularly serve together at Ash Wednesday services. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of penitence and fasting. Our Prayer Book tells us Lent “was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth by the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.” I’d rather not think of myself and my marriage as in need of a “continual renewal of repentance and faith.” I think I’m a pretty good husband: I do the grocery shopping, I help out with the chores around the house, I watch those awful British period dramas on PBS that Amy likes. What more can one expect?
After the congregation receives the imposition of ashes, Amy and I turn to one another. I stick my thumb into the container of ashes and grind it a bit so that the ashes cling to my skin. Then I take my thumb and trace a black sign of the cross on my wife’s forehead and I say to her, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I do not like this. I don’t like looking my wife in the eye and telling her that she is going to die. Every year I think this time I’ll do it without my voice cracking and my eyes welling up with tears. And every year, my throat catches and the tears swell. The trouble is that these words are true. The liturgy forces me to be truthful with myself and with my wife about something I’d rather not acknowledge. It is such a stark truth. I wish we could ease our way into the whole truth telling business. Couldn’t we start with the ways I am a terrible passenger when Amy is driving? Not on Ash Wednesday. It’s as if the liturgy is saying, “Let’s get clear about this big truth up front. You are both going to die. Now we can get honest about the rest of your lives.”
That is precisely what the Ash Wednesday service does. We say Psalm 51 (Miserere mei, Deus/Have mercy on me, O God) and then kneel for the Litany of Penitence. No one gets through this unscathed. We publically confess to God and “to one another, and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” There is nowhere to hide as we confess our lack of love and forgiveness, the “pride, hypocrisy and impatience of our lives,” our “dishonesty in daily life and work,” and about a half dozen other types of sin.
Praying this litany within earshot of my wife is particularly bracing. We confess our “intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts.” Left to my own devices, I might be able to convince myself that I lead a rather simple life. With my spouse kneeling beside me, I must confess the part of me that believes a new 65-inch plasma television will bring marital bliss. Think of us, cuddling on the couch watching Masterpiece Theatre with those big English manor houses on such a big screen. We confess “our negligence in prayer and worship.” I’m a priest. I’m in church all the time! Except my wife knows that for a long stretch during the 2016 presidential campaign I spent more time checking the morning news than saying Morning Prayer. We confess “our waste and pollution of God’s creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.” Ugghhh! Next to my wife I can’t even get away with my slipshod recycling habits! The litany of penitence forces me to speak truthfully about my marriage whether I like it or not.
The only reason I can speak these truths is mindfulness of the promise also spoken of in the Ash Wednesday service: “the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior.” The litany ends with prayers that God’s pardon and salvation be fulfilled in us. We pray: “Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us; favorably hear us, for your mercy is great. Accomplish in us the work of your salvation, that we may show forth your glory in the world. By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord, bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.” The Ash Wednesday liturgy is framed by death and resurrection. I speak truthfully about my life and my marriage only as the Paschal Mystery is “accomplished in us.” I don’t know if I will ever be able to make the sign of the cross in ashes on my wife’s forehead without choking up. Someday, however, I hope the tears of sorrow that come with the acknowledgment of our mortality will be mixed with tears of joy in the promise of resurrection.