Driving home from our pancake dinner last night, having prepared the materials for our Ashes to Go and some Ash Wednesday goodies (which is in the back, please pick one up on the way out), the darkness mixed with the dripping from the sky. The cracks of thunder and streaks so sudden and arresting, any sleepiness I felt was shaken by the sensory bombardments.
Ash Wednesday | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
I listened to my favorite theology podcast, conscious of preparation and of timing. Of the mere hours before the start of Lent, fleeting before our gathering here today. Still wondering how to express this sense of our unmoored world with our anchoring faith.
And I thought about all the ways this season communicates around its subject without truly getting to it. All that we say about Lent or put into practice are the pieces which help bring understanding, rather than the deep understanding itself.
In other words, we have a bad habit of not getting to Lent’s point.
We focus on the fasting, mostly. Some of the preparing. We speak to the devotional character and the seeking to know God better. And it all feels complicated. Hard. And strangely chaotic. But perhaps it is more like several satellites in orbit, circling the center.
One of those satellites is our fast: the devotion or active movement toward health. Toward alignment or calibration with God. Our bishop gives us an excellent reminder of one such good and necessary devotion, urging
“that we all abstain from the things which cause fear and division and take up those spiritual disciplines which can bring us to a better understanding of ourselves and our world. Let us all pray that our hearts and minds become open to the working of the Holy Spirit and that we grow in the love which can transfigure both us and the World.”
That’s a fast we can all do.
But as I got closer to home, it was this tension and swirling and confusion which tormented me. Fasting is symbolic of something deeper, that there is more to this day and its grim reminder of death and our ritual patterning of ashes and crosses and deep confession. It reminded me of the synergy between posture and internal theology at a time when only that posture ever seems visible and known. That Lent itself may be for most of us all posture and practice without regard to their fundamental character: that our practices are inherently theological. And we, in enfleshing them, are theologians.
So what then, do we believe?
But first, we need to deal not with what we believe, but the consequence of believing.
My friend David wrote about the trouble of fasting and its theological consequence on Facebook yesterday:
Facing our deaths, limitations and failures, spiritual or biological, isn’t an exercise intended to heap paralyzing guilt or sadness on our heads, though. It is to liberate us from a culture that links success with righteousness, greatness with holiness, and winning with the favor of God. It is to liberate us from a culture that views mercy as a weakness rather than the very name of God.
During Lent, we get this amazing gift of 40 days in which it is socially acceptable to admit to ourselves and to each other that we screw up, that we aren’t all we’re cracked up to be, that we are not immortal, that we can’t make it on our own without each other and without God.
So I don’t think it’s a surprise that we begin Lent, each year on Ash Wednesday, with intentional failure, almost by design.
There is a tension between our gospel lesson and our ritual today. Jesus reminds us that when we fast and pray, we are supposed to do so in such secrecy that not even our left hands are aware of what our right hands are doing. When we pray, we aren’t to do so in religious assemblies and on street corners, both of which are happening in spades around the nation today. When fast, Jesus explains, we are not to look solemn, dismal, or with disfigured faces but to take care that no one even knows we’re fasting.
And yet, each Ash Wednesday, we gather here to do the exact opposite with black ash.
I love the gift and the grace of being forced to begin a season of penitence, fasting, and self-examination by embodying the one thing I want to avoid at all costs — my shortcomings, my limitations, and my failures. I’d much rather pretend I’m going to keep my fast perfectly, and at the end of the season, be transformed by my spiritual willpower to deny myself.
Rather than to come to the end of the season transformed by God’s love and mercy in the midst of my weakness.
But, of course, we will fail. All of us. From the most successful of us to the deepest screw ups. We will all of us, in the end, fail in both body and soul.
But God’s mercy never, ever will.
That is why when we remember that we are dust, we do so in the shape of a cross.
David and I sometimes joke about how we are often thinking the exact same thing. He in North Carolina and me in Indiana. Constantly. So seeing these words last night, coming in from the swirling confusion of Lent, and the slowly realized center, helped me understand why Lent can be so confusing and why the true meaning of Lent can be so obscured from us. Because we don’t want to go there.
That way is death. The cross. All of us, each year, like little Peter’s, rejecting the Messiah we claim to follow. Because he’s leading us, not to victory, but to death.
The early Christians made this practice, as we know, of Lent as preparation for Easter. Of making this season a time of preparing newcomers, preparing the separated, and preparing the congregation for new union and for reunion. A preparation for the courageous act of love and reconciliation in spite of ourselves and what we value.
It was a time to wrestle with the remarkable generosity Christ expects of us and demands of his followers, his very body, us.
So all of these acts, the practiced theology of this august group of theologians here, who don’t need a degree to practice this lived theology is our common language. It is the expression of this deeper belief in a transformative and courageous God. It is something, by virtue of your being called to follow him, that is evidence you are uniquely qualified to be this kind of theologian. The living in the world kind.
And this work, centered around searching and aligning with God; with fasting and communing with one another; is the groundwork and background for a most daring thesis of all. That our lives are, at their core, about expressing the generous spirit of God.
To do that, we have to first realize how very fragile that life is. And how tantalizing the thought that it is a life lived alone. Fearing the sounds of storm and the bumping of monsters. That maybe, when the clouds clear and the lights go low, we can see the sky, for all its stars and constellations, is as illuminating a place to start as these ashes and candles.