You can't conceive, my child, nor I nor anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.--Graham Greene
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2:1 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near-
2:2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.
2:12 Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
2:13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
2:14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
2:15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;
2:16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.
2:17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'"
58:1 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
58:3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
58:8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
58:9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
58:10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
1:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
1:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
1:3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
1:4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
1:5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
1:6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
1:7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
1:8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
1:9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
1:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
1:11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
1:12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
1:13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
1:14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
1:15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
1:16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
1:17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
5:20b We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.
6:2 For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
6:3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,
6:4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,
6:5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;
6:6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,
6:7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;
6:8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
6:9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see--we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed;
6:10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
6:1 "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
6:2 "So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
6:3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
6:4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
6:5 "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
6:6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
6:16 "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,
6:18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
6:19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;
6:20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.
6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
All the triumphant Christianity should die right here. It should crumple against these words like a speeding car against a brick wall. If it sees itself as an unstoppable force, this is the immovable object it impacts, and who wins? And all the obsequious, timid, too scared to speak itself to anyone Christianity, should accept the mark of ash with pride, and get off its knees, and stand up and blow the trumpet in Zion, and sound the alarm on God's holy mountain, and remember the Lord is gracious and merciful and slow to anger and full of steadfast love, should remember that even humility can be selfishness, that too much contrition can make must as much a stone of the heart as too much triumph. No, this is not a day for humiliation, nor for victory. This is a day for restoring the balance. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it, and accept our ashes as the turn from Epiphany to responsibility. We must accept them graciously. By the end, we will have too much responsibility to bear. This is not a day for weeping, This is a day the Lord has made. This is a day to begin, again.
Someone challenged me, once, when I had used the 51st Psalm in worship. They challenged me about verse 15: "Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me." They wondered if that meant an infant was born in sin, born damned, corrupted, doomed from birth to hell. I didn't give a very good answer then. I can give a better one now. We have made sin the essential postulate of salvation, and so over centuries have put such a burden on the word as to make it a concept we dare not mention. "Sin" is ultimate condemnation. But it isn't. Sin is error; sin is doing what does not promote life. Sin is mistake and misdirection. If I am a sinner from my mother's womb, it is not because I participate in sin by the act of procreation, nor that sin is passed to me as my blue eyes and brown hair were from my parents. If I am born into sin, it is because I am prone to error, born in a condition in which mistakes will be made, created in a world in which I need direction, but am unlikely to take it. That's why I need to be purged with hyssop and washed clean, so my light will break forth, so the goodness that God gives will glow on the paths of all those who know me, all those who see me. I need to come and confess and be made clean, so I can be made whole. And I need to do this in the presence of the blessed community, in the public act of worship. I need to share this.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,This is the fast God chooses; the fast that means I am sharing with my brother and sister, not hoarding while I pride myself on my self-restraint, on my ability to know what it is to go hungry when my pantry is full, to be thirsty when I have more cups than I can drink from in a day, more plates than I can use in a week, so much food I will throw some out if I don't stuff myself with it now. That is why I need guidance, direction, to be washed clean by God: so I will see and know my sister and my brother and share my food with them, bring Carnival to my soul by sharing panem and carnem with those who have neither. Farewell to me, but hello to them. This is the feast the Lord desires.
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
Humility that is aimed at me is now that God desires. Humility that is aimed at hospitality, at opening my home to the stranger, at making what is mine available to someone else in need, that is the wisdom of God. "You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart." That is the wisdom God would teach to my secret heart, if I will only open it, if I will only humble it and listen.
What reward then, should I look for? Feasting and drinking and celebration are their own reward, but the works of humility are done in secret, so that God and not humankind will reward me. But what reward will that be? In the hereafter, in the sweet bye and bye, in the kingdom yet to come? Perhaps. Seems a long time to wait, and the rewards here are so plentiful and so easily taken. But what greater reward is there than kindness and openness and hospitality? If we have to account for every good thing we might have enjoyed and did not, what reward will we have for that? Pleasures are neither sins nor selfish, but selfish pleasures are sins indeed.Can I be washed of my sins and still enjoy my pleasures? Can I be led by God and still be free?
We are putting no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,But this everything is clearly "a condition of complete simplicity,/ costing not less than everything." That is quite a price to pay. Surely Ash Wednesday is about the price to pay, too. Surely that is the obstacle in the way. Surely there is no such thing as a free lunch!
but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,
beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;
by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,
truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left;
in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;
as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see--we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed;
as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
Of course, there is not. But think of the price you are paying now, the interest accumulating on the debt you owe each other that can never be paid in full, the endless rounds of gift and exchange that can never be ended except by a violent irruption into the cycle! And how do you ever do that?! Without a complete interruption, without festival and celebration leading to humility and penitence, what hope is there?
Who is this who has said:Mourning we can do in private; indeed, when we mourn for ourselves, we have been instructed to keep it a secret. But the communion of saints can only be shared, can only be public. We cannot commune privately, individually, in our closed rooms. And we cannot learn from the saints by cutting ourselves off from the sinners, from the others as miserable and joyful, as misery-making and inspiring, as we are. Even Ash Wednesday is a day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it, and the pleasures it offers.
The house of God is a House of Sorrow,
We must walk in black and go sadly, with longdrawn faces,
We must go between empty walls, quavering lowly, whispering faintly,
Among a few flickering scattered lights?
They would put upon GOD their own sorrow, the grief they should feel
For their sins and faults as they go about their daily occasions.
Yet they walk in the street proudnecked,like thoroughbreds ready for races,
Adorning themselves, and busy in the market, the forum,
And all other secular meetings.
Thinking good of themselves, ready for any festivity,
Doing themselves very well.
Let us mourn in a private chamber, learning the way of pentitence,
And then let us learn the joyful communion of saints.--T.S. Eliot
In some monastic communities, monks go up to receive the ashes barefoot. Going barefoot is a joyous thing. It is good to fell the floor or the earth under your feet. It is good when the whole church is silent, filled with the hush of people walking without shoes. One wonders why we wear such things as shoes anyway. Prayer is so much more meaningful without them. It would be good to take them off in church all the time. But perhaps this might appear quixotic to those who have forgotten such very elementary satisfactions. Someone might catch cold at the mere thought of it.--Thomas Merton
Rune before prayer (from Carmina Gadelica)
I am bending my knee
In the eye of the Father who created me,
In the eye of the Son who purchased me,
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me,
In friendship and affection.
Through Thine own and Anointed One, O God,
Bestow upon us fullness in our need,
Love towards God,
The affection of God,
The smile of God,
The wisdom of God,
The grace of God,
The fear of God,
And the will of God.
To do on the world of the Three,
As angels and saints
Do in heaven;
Each shade and light
Each day and night,
Each time in kindness,
Give Thou us Thy Spirit.
The painting is "Ash Wednesday" by Carl Spitzweig.