Cynthia Long is a librarian, folklorist, and writer with a focus in Celtic folklore, mythology, and history. She earned her M.F.A. in Fiction from Rosemont College in Rosemont, Penn., in May 2016. In August 2017 she presented at Doxacon, the Orthodox Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, on the topic of fairy tales and the famous C.S. Lewis quotation that says, "Some day you will be old enough to read fairy tales again." Cynthia was Chrismated in September 2012 and attends St. George Church in the Philadelphia suburbs, where she tends the parish library.
My first year as an Orthodox Christian I missed Ash Wednesday.
I don’t mean forgot to attend or didn’t notice it on the calendar, but literally missed. Felt absence and longing.
I understand why the Orthodox Church generally doesn’t notice Ash Wednesday. My prayers are for God alone and not human acclaim. Christ teaches us to wash our faces and give no outward appearance of fasting or inward struggles. Still, I get a little nostalgic this time of year.
Once a year, when I was still in the Western church, a black smudge from the previous year’s festal palms which had been burned to ash was applied in the sign of the cross on my forehead. By the end of the day, I had forgotten about the mark on my brow, and as I went about my routine business, strangers at the gas station or in the grocery store would nod or greet me and comment on our shared faith. (Kind strangers from unchurched backgrounds would sometimes gently alert me to dirt on my face.) One external sign made friends out of strangers.
This joy in mutual recognition was more than overcompensation for a childhood filled with peer exclusion. It wasn’t a password with a special handshake that gained entrance into a secret society, nor what sociologists might call in-group/out-group dynamics. I would never see these unknown brothers and sisters again; I was strengthened in knowing they were out there. While every other day I was reserved, once a year on Ash Wednesday I was unexpectedly united with strangers who shared my faith.
There is no Ash Wednesday in the Orthodox Church. Our whole lives should be marked by repentance. Rather than the outward piety of the Pharisee, we are encouraged to be like the Publican and constantly pray, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Instead of Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent begins on Forgiveness Sunday with a service called Forgiveness Vespers.
At the end of this service, the parishioners approach the priest and ask forgiveness. We hear the welcome words, “God forgives.” Then we share this forgiveness with one another, with every other person present, one at a time, offering also the kiss of peace. We start our Lenten journey with forgiveness and in peace with one another. Rather than a superficial appearance-based unity, on Forgiveness Sunday the Church gathers together to offer one another the true unity that forgiveness brings.
I encourage all our readers to attend a Forgiveness Vespers service if you are able.
There’s no better way to start Lent.
Kisses are better than ashes.
Note: I’ve read that some Western-rite Orthodox Churches celebrate Ash Wednesday. If your church celebrates Ash Wednesday, I would love to hear from you.
Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+