As noted by Ellen Davis in an essay called No Explanations in the Church, there’s a sign that reads just that at the entrance to the Church of the Agony at the foot of the Mount of Olives, the traditional site of Gethsemane. Ellen explains that the prohibition is, of course, “directed to tour guides and is intended to preserve the silence that wondrously pervades the achingly beautiful and (in times happier than the the present) heavily trafficked sanctuary.” In the essay Ellen goes on to write that NO EXPLANATIONS IN THE CHURCH has a broader applicability and that it is a “helpful observance for preachers… Just as chatty tour guides would get in the way of the message which Antonio Berluzzi’s magnificent architectural design silently conveys, so also preachers can obscure the very thing they are bent on making plain, namely the biblical text.”
On Wednesday morning my colleague Matthew and I will be standing on Wisconsin Avenue in NW Washington, DC, as we participate in Ashes to Go. I’ve known about Ashes to Go for a couple of years but have been dubious; I haven’t been inclined to participate because I’ve wondered about the efficacy of a sacrament enacted with a person that might not understand the implications. But do any of us? Did the disciples at The Last Supper “understand” the very first prayer of consecration? Such simple words… Take, eat. Drink.
When Matthew and I talked about what we might do we wondered about whether to have a printed explanation to hand out to whoever might participate on Wednesday, such as the “Invitation to the observance of a holy Lent” in The Book of Common Prayer. My instinct then was “No.” That instinct remains. We won’t offer explanations or obscure the biblical text we will “preach” as we impress a visible sign of invisible grace in carbon on the foreheads of whoever may come : “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…”
Beautifully, Matthew and I will be accompanied by healers – parishioners willing to pray with and for the people of God we hope to meet. I am truly excited. This seems so right.
Partakers will receive, if they choose, the prayer below.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take its good time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin