Ash Wednesday, Year A
22 February 2023
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
I will admit that Ash Wednesday has long been one of my favourite days of the liturgical year. I may struggle with other seasons of the church year, especially those when we expect our worship to be happy, to correspond with a season, maybe Thanksgiving or Christmas, to affirm a happiness that we feel or expect, or even to make us happy.
That being said, I am not living in a state of depression, nor am I opposed to happiness. I am actually a relatively happy individual. But I am not an actor and I know that I cannot perform in such a way as to make people happy or make people feel something they can’t feel on their own. It’s an old joke that Jackie and I would get our picture taken with a soft focus lens and that would constitute the church ad in the Yellow Pages, if there still were Yellow Pages. But I have a really low threshold for what I would call performative worship that is supposed to make us feel a certain way, usually good, and occasionally bad, depending on the season. To me, there often seems something manipulative about it, but mostly a dis-connect with reality.
And so Ash Wednesday is my kind of day. No room for fluff. It is also austere and serious. I mean, where else do we remember that we are dust and that to dust we shall return?
I love Ash Wednesday because it takes away our illusions. It is not the stripping of the altar as the church does as a liturgical act on Maundy Thursday, as a sort of culmination of Lent, but it is the stripping away of our illusions. Our illusions have to do with our denial of death, perhaps physical death, or the denial of something else, and admitting our denial would mean some kind of death, the death of an illusion. The reason I personally continue to experience our cultural celebrations of Christmas as difficult is that when I was young we had to live the illusion of being a happy family when we all knew that the opposite was true.
This Advent Jackie and I discovered Gayle Boss’ Advent Book All Creation Waits. It is a beautifully written and illustrated book in which she helps the reader enter the mystery of Advent by telling about how animals adapt to dark and cold, serving as a metaphor for the life we seek and the life God has promised us, remembering that dark and cold affect our lives, too.
She has a Lenten book that follows a similar pattern. But here she does not write about how animals adapt but how their species are threatened. She writes in the preface, ‘biologist now tell us that Earth is undergoing its sixth mass extinction. The first five extinctions spiraled out of geologic cataclysms of one kind or another … Today’s cataclysm is a new kind. For the past century whole species have been disappearing a hundred times faster, … , than in the past because the choices about shelter, food, transportation, communication, and leisure … we humans make every day are pounding the planet.’1
Earlier she had told the reader how she had tried to explain Lent to her children when they were young. It seemed a rather abstract concept to them. One day she realized that Noah’s Ark is a symbol of our Lenten journey and she told her two boys that the ark is the church, the community that carries us across the roiling chaos of our lives. But that too seemed rather abstract. Her boys were much more interested in the animals that had populated the ark. And one day, after her boys were grown she made the connection to St Paul’s speaking about the groaning of creation. So now she writes about the groaning of creation (which includes us) and also remembers the promise Paul articulates about the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Or put another way, those who do not die cannot be raised to eternal life. Thus the stripping away our illusions about the world and ourselves is a pre-condition for being born anew. It is a death that leads to life. Lent holds the promise of resurrection.
When later we are marked with the ashen cross on our foreheads and will hear the words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” it is not to discount our existence or the existence of the rest of creation, but a reminder of what is impermanent and what is permanent, helping us to know what to desire, and what to let go of, to know what is illusory and what is real.
The things that Jesus warns us about in Matthew six are related to pride. Yet more helpful, I think, is to call them performative. The things Jesus describes are about letting people know how good we are. We don’t do them for God, we do them for others, except not really. Often such behaviour is borne out of insecurity. People suffering from self-doubt may shout loudly about their worthiness, not only to convince others but firstly to convince themselves. Jesus says that we are worthy, therefore there is no need for us to perform in this way. And if Jesus says that we are worthy, that is enough.
But there is another way to be performative. Maybe it is borne out of the same insecurity. The way I have observed it, is often as it relates to injustice. It will point out injustice but it does not model how to be just. It has great intentions but comes across as accusatory rather than sincere, and we know that anytime we are accused, rightly or wrongly, we will deny the accusation.
New life only becomes possible when we give up all pretenses and illusions and seek to learn from the One who is just and who is real. Lent is a penetential season for us, not just for the others.
My office has large windows for which I am thankful. Across the driveway is a strip of land that is owned by the City. On it I can see “mountains” of blackberry bramble. I never gave it much thought until last fall when our Multi-Faith Earth Care group worked for a few hours at rescuing trees from the choke hold that blackberry bramble had on them. Now when I see blackberries I also see the trees they choke.
Lent is a time to strip away, and we begin with our illusions, so that life can begin anew. The treasure Jesus calls on us to store up is not just for the future, it is for now. As Catherine of Siena said, “All the way to heaven is heaven, for Jesus said, I am the way.”
1 Wild Hope – Stories for Lent from the Vanishing, Gayle Boss, illustrated by David G. Klein, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press (2020), page 6