Here is the problem; here on the Gulf Coast, we have just finished the Mardi Gras season which is completely given over to frivolity and hilarity, (purple and gold necklaces!) and suddenly we are faced with Ash Wednesday. It is difficult to get all morose and gloomy so suddenly, especially when the Azaleas are blooming and nature seems to want to be about new life rather than about ashes and death.
A Different Approach: Life
So, I want to suggest to us a different approach. It is true that ashes are all about mourning and death, and in our refections today we will go there, but let us start with life. There are two powerful statements in scripture, one from Moses and the other from Jesus, that act like two ends of an axis, like the poles of the earth – everything revolves around these two statements; they sum up the significance of everything we believe and make sense of it. Here they are:
First Moses: he is standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai with the torah in his hands, making his appeal to the people he has just led out of Egyptian slavery, and he says to them:
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, Deut. 30:19
“Choose life”! Now hear from Jesus:
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10
Both Moses and Jesus see it as their mission to bring life to us, not death. In fact, both of them see their mission as saving us from paths of death – spiritual death, emotional death, social death, relational death.
Moses and Jesus completely agree on this: everything God wants for us, everything he commands, everything he forbids, everything he promises, all are to give us; well-being, peace, or in Hebrew, Shalom; that is life.
Moses & Jesus on Genuineness & Life
Moses and Jesus are in complete agreement about the path to life: it lies in genuineness, not in falseness; in truth, not denial.
Moses said it this way:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Deut. 6:4-5
Jesus said it like this:
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; … whenever you give alms… whenever you pray… whenever you fast… [do so in secret] and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matt. 6
It must be real, it must be from the heart – the whole heart. It’s not a performance, it’s not about what other people think, it’s about a genuine, authentic connection with the Father that is perfectly congruent; seamless from the secret room where you pray all alone, down to the public street where you shop.
The path to life is in a genuine, living connection with God, not in phoniness.
That is what Isaiah the prophet was so upset about. In our Old Testament reading we heard him castigate the utter falseness of a religious life that would include fasting and prayer without living the faith in practice – listen again:
6“Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? 7“Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Isaiah 58:6-7
If it’s not real, it’s no good. The fasting and the ashes are meant to lead to something genuine, not to be an end in themselves. Why in the world would God want fasting without compassion? Why would he want ashes without justice? God does not need more hungry dirty people in the world!
Jesus had the exact same analysis: acts of piety – prayer and fasting, they are not ends, they are means. The end is that we would live and act as Jesus’ disciples in word and deed, imitating him in his genuine trust in our Heavenly Father and in his embrace of all people with God’s love, especially the poor and suffering ones.
Falseness & Death
Genuineness is the path to life. But the problem that we live with is that we humans share a common characteristic tendency to confuse the means with the ends. If the means to a life-giving faith includes prayer, worship, and seasons of fasting like Lent, we tend to make them the the end itself, convincing ourselves that we are pleasing God in the process.
We are painfully aware that there were slave-owners and even slave-traders who thought of themselves as good Christians. We know that lots of people in Europe who wanted to think of themselves as Christians turned a blind eye to the holocaust, knowing but in denial about what they knew.
Even today there are people whose greed and corruption cause enormous damage who think that they are OK with God because they go to church.
Let’s bring it down onto a more personal level: churches are not without people who harbor envy and hold grudges, who withhold forgiveness for past wrongs, who use their power to bully and control, who are unfaithful to their spouses – who do not get the enormous disconnect between their personal lives and the faith they espouse. That is the way of death. There is no health in that condition; it is false; it kills the spirit, it kills the life of the community, and it brings effective mission to a grinding halt.
We need ashes
And I’m not just talking about “other people” – I have to include myself. None of us live lives of total congruency. None of us is without fault. This is why we need Ash Wednesday.
This is the great reality-check day of the Christian year. This is the day on which we go back to square one, back to fundamental principles, back to basic facts.
Fact number one: I am not God, I am mortal. The universe does not revolve around me; I have a place on this planet in this moment, but I am only human. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I have been given the gift of life not to live for myself, but to know my place in this world. God is God; to him I am responsible.
Fact number two: being a human means I sin. I know it, I do not deny it. I am not happy about it, but there it is; that’s the reality. God asks me to love him with my whole heart and mind and strength; I do not. God tells me to love my neighbor as myself. I do not.
God tells me that the fast that he chooses is to share my bread with the hungry and to cloth the naked, to loosen every oppressing yoke. That is what real faith does. That is the path of life that Moses and Isaiah and Jesus were talking about.
So, as it turns out, even though we wanted to stay on the Mardi Gras theme of festival, we ended up taking trip down the road of ashes and death; mortality and sinfulness.
And that is the great irony of faith: that when we start with the real truth, minus the self-deceptions and pretensions, when we start with our mortal, sinful human condition, then we are set free to be open and honest, and to turn to God for his grace to live more congruent, genuinely faithful lives.
So we need these ashes today. They announce that we have accepted the truth, and we have come to the real and living God, seeking true and genuine life
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. – Jesus