Mortal, repent, prepare for Easter!
When I read about Isaiah’s fury against false fasts,
ashes without regret,
sackcloth without repentance,
and ritual without justice…
When I read all of this while preparing to put ash crosses on people’s foreheads I get a little nervous.
When Jesus speaks poorly of outward almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—on this Ash Wednesday,
On this start of Lent, when traditionally Christians put a special emphasis on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—
the imposition of ashes almost feels like dumping hot coals on people’s heads.
Both of these readings tell us of the danger of religious ritual.
Isaiah speaks to the fact that religious ritual can get in the way of justice.
We can say to ourselves, “I heard about being concerned about fellow Children of God at church—that makes me a religious person.”
Or I had ashes rubbed on my forehead—so I don’t need to help my neighbor out of the ash-heap.
For that matter, Jesus speaks of another way religious ritual can be abused. We can use our perceived piety—our public faith—to make us popular and impressive.
We can use our faith to get ahead to make people like and trust us. We can put people at ease by reminding them we’re Christian.
And, Dr. Wangert—the Confessions professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia where I am studying—understands both of these dangers to be part of a much larger tendency of human beings.
We thrive on works righteousness—we want to earn our way into heaven.
So deeply does Dr. Wangert worry about this tendency that—to protect himself from works righteousness—gives up the same things every Lent.
For the 40 days of Lent he refuses to eat Whale Blubber.
He fasts from eating Whale Blubber because he never has ate Whale Blubber—in fact he’s never even seen Whale Blubber.
So this fast is so easy that there is absolutely no way he could make the mistake of thinking his Lenten discipline makes him righteous.
So my question becomes… if Religious Ritual is such a risk
If putting ashes on our head is such a danger
If a forty day fast is so perilous
Why do we do it? Why do we risk Ash Wednesday and Lent?
We risk Ash Wednesday because we need to be reminded that we’re mortal.
We risk Ash Wednesday because we need to be reminded that we’re sinners in need of repentance
And we risk Ash Wednesday because we need to prepare for Easter.
We’re mortals, we’re sinners, and we’re preparing for Easter.
Lord God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.
We’re mortal. When we hear the words, “You are dust and to dust shall you return,” we remember our origin is in the earth.
We remember that we are perishable
we remember that we have an expiration date.
We look back to scripture and meditate on how in the earliest chapters of Genesis we are described as dirt with spirit breathed into us.
We are earthlings created from the earth.
Dust to dust.
These words from scripture remind us of our impermanence here on this earth in the same way the death of No-dar Kum-ar-it-ash-vili—the 21-year-old Luger from the country of Georgia—did last Friday in Vancouver when he died practicing for his Olympic event.
Even a young Olympian—a man at the top of his game—one of 8 people representing his country to the world—is still dust.
We are reminded of our mortality this Ash Wednesday the same way as when we drive in the snow
and we can’t quite see over the snow bank
and we go to make a turn and next thing we know we are close enough to an oncoming truck that we can look the driver right in the eyes.
Ash Wednesday is a close call. It gets our hearts beating fast and our adrenaline pumping.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we—like snow—will melt away.
We like dust will blow away. We are mortal.
Ash Wednesday also reminds us that we are sinners in need of repentance.
When we feel the ash upon our brow—
we are mourning our own failures toward God and toward our neighbors.
We are being reminded of our own fallibility—our own imperfection and our own weakness.
Administering ashes remind us of the life shattering capacity of sin just like the two shootings that broke Baltimore’s eight days of being a murder free city did on Monday.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of how we act without the ability to know the full consequence of those actions,
That we are born into situations with no good solutions.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that even in those rare moments of clarity, when we see the good and the right and we have the ability to do the good and the right, we fail at that too.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are sinners in need of repentance.
And sometimes being able to say, “I’m a mortal sinner,” has its effect.
Sometimes saying, “I am mortal” grips me with a realization of how precious life is. Sometimes it shakes the assumptions of my death-denying culture. It moves me out of a frame of mind fixated on quick fixes, instant gratification, and lack of concern for others.
Sometimes saying, “I’m a sinner” is like holding up a mirror to myself. I am faced with my own motives and drives and realize where I am wrong.
I can look at my ritual and my robes and see that it has robbed someone else of justice. I can look at the motives for my almsgiving and see that I just want to be seen.
I can ask myself what do I treasure that is deadly and what do I treasure that is sinful?
Sometimes stating that I’m a sinner works repentance in me.
But sometimes saying, “I’m a mortal sinner,” weighs me down. Sometimes I am so aware of my own inadequacy that my feet of clay all but kill me. Sometimes the shortness of time I have on this earth paralyzes me with fears about my future and regret about my past.
And in those times it is good to look around. It is good to see the ash upon the head of my brothers and my sisters. It is good to see that I am in good company. I am in a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.
I am reminded that as with it and as on top of things as (Pastor Gregg/Mother Glenna) is (he/she) is still another mortal sinner like me—full of fallibility and fragility. We’re all in the same boat—we’re not alone in our struggles and our fears.
Not only does Ash Wednesday and Lent remind us that we are all mortal, and that we are in need of repentance, but it is our preparation for Easter.
If I look closer still at my sister’s ashen cross I am struck by something
Its something so obvious that you might not think about it unless you stopped and thought about it.
It’s a cross on our forehead!
It’s the Cross of Christ—for He too suffered death, and he who knew no sin became sin for us.
Jesus Christ himself shares this ash with us.
Yet I hasten to add that when Christ shares with us there is something more going on than simply solidarity with us.
There is something more going on than Jesus being in the same boat as us.
There is something transformational going on as well!
When he shared the dust of death with us on Easter morning he enlivened it with breath and spirit.
When he shared the ash of sin with us on Easter morning he made soap out of it—He made it an instrument of our purification.
He has transformed the human condition itself—he transformed every part of being human in this world—into something worthy of God.
And I’m here to tell you I believe in transformation.
I believe out of the ragged stuff of humanity God can patch together a quilt!
I’ve seen with my own eyes a sign of sin and death embedded upon a man’s brow transformed into Easter hope.
Seven years ago I was volunteering at the Comea Shelter a homeless men’s Shelter back home in Cheyenne Wyoming.
Each day I filled the shelter’s old blue mini-van up with bedding and drove it down to the commercial laundermat, picked up any donations around town, picked up the clean bedding, and brought it all back.
Sometimes shelter residents would ride with me and help me load and unload things.
There was one resident in particular who would often ride with me.
He happened to have a swastika prominently tattooed on his forehead.
We worked together for several weeks—and during that time I did my best not to stare at that thing on his head—I did my best not to ask questions about it.
Then one day we were driving along and he said to me, “Chris. I know you look at it.”
“Look at what?” I asked.
“The swastika,” he replied.
I was –this close—to responding, “What Swastika,” but by that time I was staring at his forehead instead of the road, so I replied guiltily, “Yeah, I do.”
“I got it while I was in prison down in Denver,” he explained.
That was of course just the kind of comforting thing you want to hear while alone with a guy twice your size.
All I could reply was, “Oh?”
He then told me how he had hated blacks and Latinos… though he used much stronger language for both.
“Oh,” I against replied, limply.
He continued, “Then I got out. No landlord wanted someone like me as a renter… the only place that would take me was a housing co-operative ran by a black man. It took me a while, but I just couldn’t hate them any more.”
So yes, I trust that mortality and sin can be made into eternity and sanctity.
I trust the Easter promise.
I trust in a light shining in the darkness
I trust the gloom of night to be as bright as the noon sun.
I trust that our needs will be satisfied in parched places.
I trust that ruins will be rebuilt and the breach will be restored.
I even trust that the treasure of Christ has transformed our ritual into justice,
our self-flattery into piety
our works righteousness into works of love,
and I’m willing to stare sin and death in the face in order to prepare to celebrate that!
The reason we risk Ash Wednesday and we risk Lent is because we’re mortal, we’re sinners, and we’re preparing to celebrate Easter. A+A