I was going to wear my good alb for Ash Wednesday worship, except that it's not my good alb any more.
I bought this one a few years ago, just before I traveled to South Dakota for one of my congregations' 100th Anniversary. It seemed like a good occasion to splurge, to show my congregation that I had come up in the world, even just a little. I had made do for many years with the least expensive robe I could find. It had velcro at the top, and fastened with velcro too. The new one had buttons! and two pockets. I had saved up a little money, so I bought it.
A couple of weeks ago I brought my robe to a wedding where I would be officiating. It was an outdoor wedding, and I was undecided about whether I would wear it or not. I decided I would not. But when I got home, it looked wrinkled, and I thought I would put it in the wash. And in the dryer.
When I came out, I discovered that I had left a ballpoint pen in the pocket.
This was a terrible mistake.
There were great big blotches of ink all over the robe. I mean ALL OVER. I sprayed and put the robe in the wash again. I soaked it for a week, and sprayed it again. And washed it again. Some of the spots have become a little lighter.
But not much.
I briefly considered wearing the alb anyway, on Ash Wednesday. If you see it, you might see why. It is a great (or terrible, depending on your point of view) visual aid of the presence and persistence of sin in our lives. We are all marked. And we can't get the stains out, no matter how hard we try.
I briefly considered wearing the alb anyway, but I just couldn't. I decided that it was just too embarrassing. I just couldn't stand up there with all those ink spots, and imagining everyone looking at me, thinking, "What HAPPENED?" or "How dumb could she BE?"
There are times when I wonder, too, about wearing the ashes, on Ash Wednesday. I wonder about it because I always read the gospel of Matthew, which tells me not to practice my piety in front of others, so that they will say, "Good job! You're so religious!" And I have thought of the ashes as an act of piety.
But today I think that the ashes are more like that stained alb that I won't wear, because it's too embarrassing. To wear the ashes is to admit my fault, my sin, my failure. To wear the ashes is to confess my impiety. I am in the company of those who have failed. I am in the company of those who have done stupendously dumb things, like wash clothes with a pen in the pocket. I am in the company of those who have done mean things, and ignorant things, who have majored in minors, and not paid attention to the most important things.
So, I will not wear the robe tonight. I'll wear the older one. That one has a tear in the pocket, and some other flaws you might notice if you look closely.
Most of the time we don't want people to look too closely. But on Ash Wednesday, some of us dare to stand together, marked, and tell each other the truth about our sad and beautiful lives. There is power in that. God can change us then. Into what, I only have a vague idea, except that he promised that we would be transformed from one degree of glory into another.