Monday, February 24, 2020

What can we say on Ash Wednesday?

  Ash Wednesday. I always tell myself and fellow clergy that they don’t come for the homily. They come for the ashes. With coronavirus, will they come at all? Self-administration of ashes? We'll be online only - so we'll ask folks to find a little dirt and apply it, asking them to ponder that we come from dust / dirt, and we'll return there too. If people come where you are, or if you're only virtual, I still love the great reflection Martin Sheen offered when interviewed by Krista Tippett: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say Here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”

   I continue to commend some sort of Lenten fast, although it gets watered down into dieting or substituting beer for wine or whatever you gave up. Jesus fasted for his 40 days, and the saints we adore did the same. 
William Placher's terrific Mark commentary cites Alexander Schmemann ("Fasting makes us light, concentrated, sober, joyful, pure"), Macrina Wiederkehr ("Fasting is cleansing. It lays bare our souls. In the Divine Arms we become less demanding and more like the One who holds us. We hunger and thirst for justice, and holiness. We hunger for what is right. What hunger to be saints"), and St. Basil ("Fasting is to refrain from vice"). I'll ponder those for me, whether they worm their way into a sermon or not.

   Matthew 6 is perfect yet terribly odd for Ash Wednesday. Jesus tells us not to practice our piety visibly (v. 1), and not to disfigure our faces but to wash them (v. 16) – on the very day we disfigure our faces publicly. Nobody at my place though is showing off, sporting ashes for the rest of the day. If anything, they’ll get some strange stares at the store on the way home.

  When I get home, I try to take some time to linger before a mirror – to ponder that I have just been marked with the horror and hope of Jesus’ cross. No hymn captures so thrillingly the paradox of this horror and hope as Isaac Watts’s “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” We “survey” the cross. We don’t just glance at it. The soldiers didn’t survey this one. They’d seen plenty of crosses, and had no reason to think this was God. All they saw was a dying, despised person – which was precisely what God was hoping to achieve. More lines in that hymn bear reflection: “Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” Onlookers saw tragedy, maybe justice mingled.

   “Did e’er… thorns compose so rich a crown?” At Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury placed St. Edward’s Crown on her head. It was heavy, forged of 22 karat gold, with 444 precious stones, aquamarines, topazes, rubies, amethysts, sapphires. She then knelt to receive the body and blood of our Lord. Did she ponder Jesus’ very different crown, its only ornaments those harsh thorns gashing his forehead, scalp and temples?

   “My richest gain I count but loss.” Lent is the season to reassess what has value, what doesn’t, how much we offer up to God. Do we urge our people to embark on a fast? It’s not dieting. It’s not being glum and feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s solidarity with those who aren’t choosing to fast. It’s weaning ourselves from dependencies on things. It’s an awakening to where our treasure is.

   Where are the “Take the Bible literally!” people when it comes to “Do not lay up treasure on earth”? We prudently save, we check our retirement portfolios, we pay off the house. No use castigating the people, or ourselves. It’s a mark of our brokenness, our desperate need for the true God. The ashes are lie that mark on Cain’s forehead. It’s guilt, and grace.

  And so we invite people into (hopefully) a growing devotion, a loosening of our grip on our treasures, an expansion of God and grace into daily life. Here’s something we did a few years back. At the Baptism of the Lord, we handed out shower tags (we got the idea, and even purchased the tags from Adam Hamilton!), which you hang in the bath: “Lord, as I enter the water to bathe, I remember my Baptism. Wash me by your grace, fill me with your Spirit, renew my soul. I pray that I might live as your child today, and honor you in all that I do.”

   On Ash Wednesday, we picked up on Matthew 6 and handed out closet tags. Jesus said “Go into your closet to pray.” The Greek tameion is an inner room of the house, a storeroom, small, private – reminding us of the need for a dedicated holy space at home. I love this – that if you go into your closet and pray, you are doing God’s will! Picking up on other clothing images in Scripture, here’s how that tag reads: “Jesus said, ‘Go into your closet and pray in secret; and your Father will reward you.’ So pray. Prepare for your day with God. As you dress, remember Romans 14:8, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,’ and Colossians 3:12, ‘Put on compassion, patience, forgiveness, love – and be thankful. Whatever you do, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus.’”

   Two more items while we’re on Matthew 6. Jesus says “When you pray,” not “If you pray” – and he was assuming 3 set times of prayer as was common Jewish practice then and now. When Will Willimon was Dean of Duke Chapel, he told about a Muslim student who asked him, “Why don’t the Christian students ever pray?” He obviously observed the 5 set daily times for prayer in Islam, and was puzzled that he never ever saw Christians stopping to pray. It’s a judgment call whether you can mention this to your people. I think it’s compelling, and inviting – but some folks have such potent, irrational anti-Muslim feelings that they’ll shut down on you.

   And then Jesus talks about “reward,” shunning earthly reward, but implying quite clearly there are rewards, ultimate rewards to the life of faith. I for one downplay this, remembering a very smart college student who asked me if he could become a Christian if he didn’t believe in eternal life. His angle was he wanted to follow Jesus just because it was good, right, noble and true, not to secure any prize for himself. I admire that – but quite clearly the Gospels and Epistles lay out for us fabulous, unspeakably fantastic rewards, or ultimate realities, for those who believe.

 ** Check out my new podcast, Maybe I'm Amazed - amazing conversations with amazing people who've done amazing things! Starting with Civil Rights hero Dorothy Counts Scoggins, continuing with theologian Wendy Farley, UNC basketball coach Roy Williams, 7 time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, Walter Brueggemann, Amy-Jill Levine, and more!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.