February 17, 2010

“Ashes and Water Do Mix”
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. I know you haven’t done this before. Not the Ash Wednesday thing, I know you’ve done that. I know you have because what would Fashnacht Day be without Aschermittwock? I mean the imposition of ashes. It may make you uncomfortable, and part of me is sorry for that. Still, for me it makes sense to do this, given the name of the day and the service; but the truth is many churches will have held the service without the use of ashes.

This I do not understand. Since the early days of the Christian church, this has been a season of repentance and preparation for baptism on Easter morning. Ash Wednesday begins this journey.

This is not only a tradition of the church, but a biblical idea that symbolizes repentance. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent’s way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one’s penitence is found in Job 42:3-6. Job says to God: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Ezekiel 9 also speaks of a linen-clad messenger marking the forehead of the city inhabitants that have sorrow over the sins of the people. All those without the mark are destroyed.

Part of the problem may be that we do not use these words very often these days, penitence, repentance. They aren’t used, and even more infrequently, enacted! This very morning I heard a spot on NPR on my way to church about Toyota, the commentator noted that Toyota is a very ‘old school’ Japanese company, seeped in the Japanese culture. Now if you know anything about the Japanese, you know that guilt is a more powerful force there than it is yielded by your mother. In Japan, your first inclination is to admit your guilt and hang your head. Not so here. In the USA, Toyota has been cautioned not to testify to congress, not to make any admission of guilt lest they get sued.

This is our first problem. There is a big cultural force that keeps us from easily and quickly admitting guilt. You only need to watch one of those so-called ‘entertainment’ news shows after the evening news to get a full dose of people whose ego’s do not allow them to admit guilt, or (apparently) change their ways. This is partly an intellectual issue. We tell ourselves that we are not as bad as that person over there, or even that because of the limits of our failures that we are a good person. Then this avoidance of telling the truth about ourselves is compounded by our tendency to ‘shame’ one another. It is one thing to be guilty, it is quite another thing for people to ‘shame’ you. I tend to define shame as something that is assigned externally, by others, and not entirely an internal experience. Do you remember the book, “The Scarlet Letter”? I do not know of a better icon of the kind of suffering that a religious cultural shame can produce than “The Scarlet Letter.”

This is humiliation and not what we are talking about. We are about what Paul describes as the ministry of reconciliation:

20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, God making his appeal through us. We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:20-21, NRSV)

Paul recognizes that we are caught. We are caught between the first idea, via our humanity, that there isn’t really anything that we need to change in our lives, we are doing the best we can, and if there is something there, for God sake don’t admit it because people will shame you; and the second idea, born of our faith, that we are sinners. We know that we do need to change our ways and avoid those things that separate ourselves from God, and we know we cannot do it ourselves…because, well, we keep doing it! This is another reason, I believe we struggle with Ashes on our foreheads: it appears as though nothing good can come from it.

Let us also be honest and recognize that for some time there has been a good deal of anti-Catholicism in our churches. That alone was the reason that many of our churches stopped with this old Christian practice. I for one am glad that much of this anti-catholic baggage is dying and we can now reclaim practices that were and are Christian.

Some people point to this text from Matthew and suggest it is asking us to avoid things like this; do your sackcloth and ashes in private. Still, I would suggest that using the ashes in worship is a meaningful ritual action of Christian people in the presence of God and one another, and so not quite the same thing as sitting in ashes in the public square to show we are fasting.

Thankfully, Things are changing. There is growing trust and appreciation of ritual gesture and symbol in our culture. If you don’t believe that, re-watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics…or the Super Bowl. Baby boomers and baby busters who were raised in a world of television and technology are visually-oriented and sensually-oriented. Icons, such as the Nike swoosh, help many people of those generations make sense of the world. Ashes on the forehead, lots of water at baptism, bread that is really bread, and anointing with oil for healing is increasingly familiar and comfortable to the people in our United Church of Christ congregations for good reason.

Tonight we are about ancient Christian practices, that remind us, yes, that we are not perfect, but also that we are by our Baptism God’s people still; we are beyond being shamed. We are God’s people, don’t look at our failures and say, well, we’re only human. What were we then when we were able to offer another God’s mercy? When we were about the mission of the church? We are beyond being shamed. We are about reconciliation tonight, this Lent. To get there we all know that we need to change our direction, to repent, to turn back in the direction God is sending us. But we need not shame another to get started on our way. That is not the message.

Did you hear God’s word? Did our confession, did our receiving of the Ashes, did you get prepared enough to hear the good news? Ash Wednesday, and Lent for that matter, is not about making you feel guilty. It is about stripping off the layers of grime and varnish (Fr. William Byrne, in “The New Faithful” p. 35, by Coleen Caroll, Loyola Press, 2002).

These texts refuse and resist the conventional Lenten accent on pious self-denial. They have in mind not preoccupation with failure and inadequacy, but rather a future-oriented embrace of new life that God will accomplish through a daring obedience. The bid of these texts is to be reconciled, to overcome the alienations. What strikes me is that these texts are so buoyant and hope-filled. In his somewhat self-pitying inventory, Paul pivots around the imperative “be reconciled”—be reconciled to God, with no doubt that what will surely follow is reconciliation with the neighbor. These texts turn Lent away from personal piety toward a world that may be healed. These texts are unrelenting in their narrative about another life in another world, the one that God wills and gives. Hearers, we are endlessly in the process of deciding, always yet again, for the alternative, refusing the seductions of shame or self-satisfaction. (Walter Brueggemann, Sojourners, “Living the Word”, February 2010, adapt.)

The ‘old Roman’ ritual calls for using a bit of ‘holy water’ and oil in preparing the ashes from the Palm Sunday palms.  Although one commentator cautions that water and ash can produce a “caustic” mix, and to leave the water out, the symbolism is not lost on me.  There is something powerful and mysterious to me in the mixing of baptism and repentance.  It isn’t new, of course.  Our baptism is something we do only once, but the question, “do you renounce the  powers of evil,” comes to us again and again.  So, water and ashes do mix you see, as we seek to become the people God has already claimed us to be.