From the Inside Out: What Ash Wednesday is Really All About
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. I will be administering lots of ashes. From 8:00-10:00 AM I will be administering ashes outside, in Kennedy Plaza, to people rushing to work. Kennedy Plaza is “next door” to Burnside Park, where Church Beyond the Walls gathers each Saturday, for worship, followed by a simple meal, and fellowship in Christ. We are literally “taking it to the streets,” and I urge other clergy to do the same. In our post modern world, many peoples’ lives are changing. “Church” is no longer the center of peoples’ lives. Other commitments, some of them extremely important, like work and family, and making ends meet, take priority. So, following the way of Jesus, we will go out to where the people are, Beyond the Walls.
Okay, so it might sound weird, but I love Ash Wednesday. I love it because it is sobering. It is sobering to smudge my finger into ashes from last year’s Palm/Passion Sunday palms, symbolic of our heart’s fickleness, we who shout “Hosanna” in one breath, then “Crucify him!” with our very next breath. It is sobering to hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I like the sound of it in Spanish: “Recuerde que eres polvo y al polvo volveras.” “Polvo” sounds so shocking. “Dust.” Sometimes we need to be whacked upside the head.
The thing that strikes me about all of the readings for Ash Wednesday is that they all emphasize that it is not the externals that matter, but what is inside. Even wonderful, helpful, gracious acts can leave someone feeling hollow or looked down upon, if our heart is not in the right place. Tomorrow I am choosing to use the alternative reading from the Hebrew Bible: Isaiah 58: 1-12:
The people ask God, “‘Why have we fasted, and you have not seen it?…Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking one another with wicked fists…Is this the kind of day I have chosen, only for people to humble themselves?…Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke.to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear!”
In other words, “Get out of your “SELF” and notice the needs of those around you! Don’t act all humble and righteous in your relationship with God, if you are not living that relationship out in your human relationships. That is why Jesus’ greatest commandment holds our relationship with God and our relationships with others together: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength AND love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The two simply cannot be separated.
My beloved friend and mentor, Rev. Carl Bloomquist, who now lives in the fullness of God’s presence, told me of a time when he preached a challenging sermon about how we cannot separate our relationship with God from our relationships with other people. A woman walked out of church and said obsequiously, while shaking his hand, “What a wonderful sermon, pastor!” Within the hour, he was on the highway, heading to his next event, when a car whizzed by him, and the driver flipped him the finger! As the driver and he exchanged glances, he was horrified to see that it was the woman who had just praised his sermon, giving him the finger on the highway! Of course, she had not known that the driver she was flipping off was her pastor, until it was too late. I commend him for never telling me who she was. But a couple of years ago, she “fessed up” to me.
It does not matter that she treated her pastor this way. What really matters is that she would treat anyone that way. If we truly see the face of God in all we encounter, then wouldn’t we treat everyone as holy? As sacred? Shouldn’t we see the face of God in all we encounter? The poor? They hungry? The oppressed? The one without a roof over her head? The addicted? The surly? The difficult? The challenging?
In the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, (Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21), Jesus tells us not to do what we do to be noticed by others, but only to do what we do as an act of love and devotion to God.
Can you join me this Lent on a forty day journey to the cross? And beyond that, to the resurrection? Can you, beginning Ash Wednesday, examine your heart, and where your heart is at? Can you take note of all those times your heart is on you, rather than on someone else? Even humility can be a form of self-absorption. Even fasting, almsgiving and prayer can be all about “US.” When we fail to notice the deep yearning and deep needs of those around us, we are flipping God off.
Polvo. Dust. That’s what we are sometimes. Thanks be to God Lent is about turning, which is what “repentance” literally means. Turning from inside, OUT, to see the face of God in all we encounter. Maybe then our faces will also reflect the face of God to those we encounter. Thanks be to God Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust, but dust which the Spirit can still breathe life into! May we all see God on the streets.
This day, may you see the face of God in all you encounter,
and may you reflect the face of God to all you encounter.
Linda Forsberg, Copyright February 9, 2016
Photos: Victoria, exiting the Cloisters, NYC; Sign for Church Beyond the Walls, Providence, RI; sharing ashes; sign from garden at Salve Regina University (Catherine McAuley is the Foundress of the Sisters of Mercy); youth on Good Friday Stations of the Cross walk; man in Balboa Park, San Diego; Kassie and friend, Good Friday Stations of the Cross walk, East Greenwich, RI