Ash Wednesday 2023

In the early church, baptisms were often performed on the night before Easter. So what is now our Lent was, at the time, the final stage in spiritual formation of the newest believers in Christ. I suspect it was natural that those who prepared, supported and celebrated with the candidates, and eventually the entire communities they were about to enter, also began to set aside this time to take their own “spiritual inventory” before this focal event. Eventually, most major church feasts came to be anticipated through fasts. But over the centuries, both the observances and associated theological emphases began to diverge. For example, the imposition of ashes that begins Lent for us was formalized in the Catholic church only in the early 11th century, and many other denominations have never incorporated it at all. This, to me, is a good reminder that church rituals are not the only factor enabling our transformation. What else is involved? Well I believe that what truly enables change and growth of any kind – not only when it comes to faith – is the openness to self-examination, and constructive honesty with self (i.e. that which surpasses shame). 

As I noticed in working with children, humans develop a sense of shame from a very young age. It is out of shame and guilt – sometimes misguided, though often well deserved – that we cling to rituals and invent sacrificial systems, just as the first humans began to sacrifice animals to “cover up” their faults, figuratively, as Adam and Eve are said to have done literally. For some of us, the customs associated with Lent – prayer, fasting, almsgiving – are, in fact, a way of making amends with ourselves, rather than with God. But today’s readings warn us that God does not delight in such sacrifices. Partly, it may be because she knows how fickle our hearts are; how quickly the words of praise, “Hosannah!” turn to “Crucify Him!” as soon as the going gets tough, or perhaps, even more so when all is well. So today, when we receive the ashes, let’s remember that they came from those branches we waved last year. How quickly they dry out, and how easily they burn… So instead of simply admitting what we have done “wrong” (which mostly appeases our own consciences), let us take a moment to remember that “we are dust” – to acknowledge that we are limited creatures, not omnipotent creators. Let’s ask to be forgiven specifically for such forgetfulness, rather than for some vague sense of “badness”. 

When we “remember we are dust”, we acknowledge that our bodies consist of the same organic particles as those of all people, creatures, and the earth itself  – essentially, of the molecules left the cauldron once the branches burn out. Whatever worth we may have now, God had invested in us at the moment of creation (so for the record, it is actually infinite!) – and not just in ourselves, but in the whole world interconnected by divine design. Once our lives are over, our bodies will break down, become one with the earth, and other things will grow in our place, which takes us to the second half of the phrase, “to dust you shall return”. Aside from referring to our mortality, this is meant to break any illusion of control we may have over our destiny. For much evil results from thinking of ourselves as more important than anything or anyone else, while in actual fact, we cannot control much of what happens to us, or even our own intentions. 

Indeed, we offend each other much more often than we know of; and according to our scripture, every offense we commit against each other is also against God. That’s helpful to keep in mind as we go through Lent, since one of the greatest temptations that awaits us is to say, “Frankly, I’ve been doing ok… Now, King David, yes, he had every reason to write Ps 51, and so does my neighbor, people in line or on the road, in-laws, bosses, criminals, or people of other faiths… but not me”. And it’s true; unlike David, most of us are not guilty of rape, murder, and adultery; though what about objectifying people, anger, and betrayal? But even that is beside the point. Today, it is important to say, together with the psalmist, “against God alone I have sinned”. Did David try to minimize the wrongs he has done to people? No. He said, “for I know my transgressions”. Yet, when the prophet Nathan confronted him, he did more than challenge David by saying that he had wronged Uriah’s family. These words could have fallen on deaf ears in the era when the kings thought they had an absolute right to take anyone’s life. Likewise, we might have our own explanations and excuses for the things that we do. But what Nathan makes perfectly clear is that it is in acting upon such assumptions that we and David “despise God” in addition to hurting people.

Nathan’s words did have an effect on David, resulting in the writing of Ps 51. What about us? Do you desire, in David’s words, a clean heart, renewed spirit, and readiness to worship? If so, we must recognize that these come from God as a gift to his creatures. Today, we come to repent of having forgotten this, and in doing so, having despised our God. We come as a community, as Joel once called the people of Israel, “to assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants… and let the priests weep”. We recall the times we took God’s blessings for granted: from the natural and material resources available to us, to the spiritual and intellectual capabilities that empower us to live into our vocation. We lament every way in which we have misused these gifts, rather than applied them to the building and sustaining God’s Kingdom on earth. And we pray that in imitation of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness, over the next 40 days, we will confront the impulses that draw us away from God and compromise our ability to inhabit the holy Image in which we have been created. Amen.

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