I got a call and email from a colleague I respect asking about Ash Wednesday services. Said colleague is Unitarian Universalist, is not Christian and is not hostile (indeed, empathetic) to Christianity. I thought I would make my reflections public, because such mutual inquiries can go far into good practices about religiously specific observances.
About ten years ago, there was a sea-change among Unitarian Universalist Christians: defensiveness and self-pity turned into optimism, outreach and self-assertion. I’ve written about this before, and to sum up, sloppy misappropriation of Christian distinctives will not be silently tolerated. There was a fair measure of pouting from those who felt their liberty — I would say license — was being limited, but the climate seems to be better and more respectful across the board now.
That said, not all Christian observances hold equal weight. I cringe when I see erzatz Communion conducted, and flower-n-bunnies Easter services make me question the mind of the preacher and the patience of the congregation. This is because the dominical sacraments and the Easter Cycle, plus the value of Christian scripture and the internal relationships of the Christian Church are terribly important. But what about Ash Wednesday?
It seems to me that there are two sets of Christian observances that more open to non-Christian adaptation. The first is those that were adapted (or have elements taken) from other religious traditions and thus have something of a hybrid character. This is particularly true if they have a set of folk traditions; Christmas is the clearest example. If you want to consider the Incarnation without distractions, you will have to make arrangements before or after Christmas. The second set are those observances that fill a logical need, but the placement and customs are less than universal. Trinity Sunday comes to mind; so does Ash Wednesday. You won’t find even the outline of a Christian consensus on either, so I’m not going to fight about who can or should do what, provided any adapted observance is respectful.
More on the how-to next time.