I love Ash Wednesday because it is a liturgical reminder of that Universalist promise that I am OK; that I am acceptable, loveable and OK just as I am. And so are you. God loves everyone, no exceptions. Even you. Even me. At the heart of Ash Wednesday and the ritual imposition of ashes is the Universalist theology that God condemns no one to eternal damnation. We are all IN with God. Even if we’re imperfect and make mistakes.
If there is anything that’s missing sometimes from the contemporary Unitarian Universalist worship tradition it is a ritual of forgiveness of, well, sins; the liturgical and prayerful recognition that I am a mess; that I am mess of anxieties and flaws and contradictions and a jumble of emotions that sometimes make it difficult for me to be my best self, and it’s OK to be such a mess. My messiness doesn’t make me unloveable or unacceptable, or wretched or evil, it just makes me human. It reminds me that I don’t need to be perfect, or even good, but as Brene Brown says (and as my partner is constantly reminding me) Good ENOUGH.
Good enough includes fucking up and unintentionally hurting others through things I do or neglect to do. It includes being self-centered and self-absorbed and self-important and beating myself up for not being who I want to be. I don’t believe that humanity is depraved and wretched, but we are not all good either. Ash Wednesday reminds me that the line between good and evil, right and wrong, dark and light, perfect and good enough are lines that run down the middle of each one of us.
Ash Wednesday reminds me that God does not seek to punish me or condemn me and I need to stop doing it to myself and others. Ash Wednesday reminds me that God loves everyone. No exceptions. Even you. Even me.
So today I took my imperfect, good-enough self (after an imperfect attempt at making ritual ashes – really, it took me three tries) and sat in coffee shops and cafes with some ashes and a sign that read “Free Ashes – Nothing can separate us from the love of God. God loves everyone. No exceptions.” I didn’t intrude on people or start up conversations. I made of myself a presence, gave out ashes to a couple of people, had some prayerful moments with a couple of baristas, doing my best to offer a simple reminder that there is nothing I or anyone else has done or will do that is so horrible we can not rest in the love of God’s forgiveness. Maybe I will even learn to better forgive myself.
Ash Wednesday reminds me that I am not God, I am human and am doing the best I can to live this human life. It reminds me that it’s good for me to say I’m sorry when I’m wrong, make amends the best I can, and move on.
Maybe this is the essence of all the old Christian traditions about repentance and the forgiveness of sins – not to make our human imperfection a burden, but to help us realize we are only human and good enough. Somewhere along the line, the concepts of sin and repentance got warped and bent into tools to heighten our shame and increase our self-loathing. Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to recover a healthy sense of sin and repentance. It’s just a part of life that we sometimes screw up, sometimes in big ways, and we need public and private ways to better acknowledge this that also reinforce for us we are only human and all we can do in any given moment is try to do our best.
The imposition of ashes is a ritual act of repentance, the purpose of which is not pointing out our wretchedness, but giving us a way to acknowledge we’ve made mistakes without giving ourselves yet another reason to feel like crap for making mistakes. Spiritually healthy acts of repentance emphasize both the responsibility to own our mistakes (confession) and recognition from another or others we are sorry for having human faults and not being our best selves (absolution). This an audacious ritual. It is at the essence of why some people had so much trouble with Jesus – he had the nerve to tell people they are forgiven for their sins! Spiritual healthy rituals of confession and absolution have to include acknowledgement that we are only human, we are doing our best, and even with our flaws and fuck-ups, we are good ENOUGH.
The Unitarian Universalist tradition needs more ritual acts of confession and forgiveness. I am comfortable with some of these inherited from the Christian tradition, such as the imposition of ashes, and I wonder what prayerful confession and absolution might look like for Unitarian Universalism.
I’m deeply grateful for the handful of people who received ashes from me today and for those who talked to me about God and Jesus while I ordered coffee and soup, and to those who asked about the rainbow pin I wore with my collar. I may not have been a perfect servant God or representative of Unitarian Universalism today, but I was good enough, and I will consider it blessing to have been reminded of that today.