Ash Wednesday 3-1-2017
©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: Isaiah 58:1-12; Ps. 103; 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10; Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21
As a parent cares for their children, so do you care for those who fear you, O God. For you yourself know whereof we are made; you remember that we are but dust. But you are full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. Help us in our dustiness to be so, too. AMEN.
Welcome to the season of baptismal preparation, the season of Lent. From the early days of the church, these days before Holy Week were set aside to prepare for the great baptismal feast of Easter. They were the culmination of a very long catechumenate – a period of instruction & preparation for the life-changing sacrament of baptism. Maybe you’re already baptized? Lent is still your baptismal season: your season to remember what it means to belong to Jesus Christ, heart & soul & mind & strength. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” asks Paul in his Letter to the Romans. “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Baptized or not yet baptized, Lent is your season to dive more deeply into Christ’s death, into your own death, so that you may be more fully alive. Because it is by dying – and ONLY by dying – to our everlastingly striving selves that we become fully and completely open to the gift of grace. We have nothing left to prove. No pious ax to grind. No trumpet to sound. No prayer to cry from the street corner.
Now death is not a popular subject in our ever-striving, ever-improving “I’ve got this!” culture. Us Baby Boomers seem more determined than any generation before us to prove we’re definitely NOT DYING. Not even aging, in fact. Look at our dyed hair, our botoxed skin, our taut muscles! So this embrace of our baptismal death to self is deeply counter-cultural. We’re not losers, we insist; we’re WINNERS! We’re not last, we’re FIRST! We’re GREAT! We DESERVE this, whatever “this” is, the “this” that we want. And we are NOT DYING. No.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way God made our messy world. In our messy world, we die all the time, over and over, on a thousand different levels. We DON’T get what we want. We discover we’ve let each other down, that we’ve hurt each other, asserting our wants, our “deserts.” We DON’T “win” the argument. We fail to achieve what we set out to do. We lose our friends, our parents, our partners. Our joints don’t work, whatever color of hair we select.
Here’s the baptismal – the resurrectional – miracle: if, instead of FIGHTING these many deaths, we embrace them as an opportunity to “die into Christ,” as an opportunity to experience God’s healing grace instead of as the final, deafening, deadening dismissal of our being, their darkness can become the “crack for the light to get in,” as Leonard Cohen sang.
Theologian Robert Farrar Capon – a poet of death and grace if there ever was one – said, “Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; he did not come to improve the improvable; he did not come to reform the reformable. None of these things works.” They don’t work because they fall short of acknowledging our powerlessness to “fix” ourselves or the world. All that rigorous discipline – without a holy death at the center of them – just holds our true powerlessness at bay. And all that effort also holds our truepreciousness at bay, as well. Because it keeps God’s love at arm’s length, while we go on busily proving that we can manage our salvation by ourselves.
So Lent is NOT about improving ourselves through a set of special disciplines – giving up chocolate; taking on exercise; reading the Bible in 40 days. Or maybe these things are only valuable when we fail at them – as we almost certainly will. Because THEN we’ll realize that our salvation is not in our own hands, but in God’s. And God has already “saved” us, in Jesus’ own loving life and death upon the Cross. Our baptismal preparation is to die into the truth of God’s great love for us and be done trying to earn it.
That’s why Lent opens with ashes. It’s why it opens with death. And it’s why we kneel and receive those ashes in a cross on our forehead, here, just here, where the cross of oil anoints us at our baptism, calling each and every one of us into our royal priesthood, the priesthood of all followers of Jesus Christ, sealing us by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marking us as Christ’s own, forever. Those ashes on our baptismal cross never lose their evocative power: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
But this is not a morbid exercise, this ashy-ness of ours. This is not some doleful practice of what my grandfather would call, “lugubrium!” No: a Lenten practice of death is JOYFUL! It is LIBERATING! Because it is the discovery and re-discovery that we are deeply, indelibly, mercifully, utterly and eternally LOVED BY GOD, ashes or no ashes.
In fact, we who raise a ruckus on Mardi Gras, on Carnival, donning costumes and dancing in the streets and brandishing instruments in the wild parade, only to sober up and don our dismal faces of fasting on Ash Wednesday have the WHOLE THING UPSIDE DOWN! It’s ASH WEDNESDAY that should be the party! Because it’s only when we get down to business and die to our own arrogance and greed and will-to-power that God’s loving grace can finally get to us. It’s on Ash Wednesday that I can commence to reclaim my true dustiness – my “humility,” my humus, “my earthiness,” my soil, my compost of rotting intentions and resolutions, out of which can come, with the help of God’s grace, goodness, mercy, kindness, steadfastness, and a willingness to suspend anger.
Congressman John Lewis, one of the vanguard of civil rights leaders, along with Martin Luther King Jr., who made the great tectonic shift of the 1960’s happen, had a conversation with Krista Tippett this January for her program “On Being,” as a part of her “Civil Conversations” project. The two of them were in the midst of “a congressional civil rights pilgrimage led by [Lewis] and attended by 30 members of the House and Senate from both parties.” Tippett says, they “stood on the holy ground of the [Civil Rights] movement in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma. It was a journey into history [she] thought [she] knew, but didn’t really — into the Civil Rights leaders’ spiritual confrontation within themselves — and into their intricate art and work of successful nonviolence.” [http://onbeing.org/programs/john-lewis-love-action/] When Tippett asked Lewis to speak in depth about the training in non-violence that he underwent – and helped create – in preparation for what lay ahead in their resistance to the vehemence of racism in that Jim Crow era, he gave a description of the most profound possible practice of baptismal dying.
REP. LEWIS: “…Long before any sit-in, any march, long before the freedom rides, or the march from Selma to Montgomery, any organized campaign that took place, we did study. I remember as a student in Nashville, Tennessee, a small group of students every Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. would gather in a small Methodist church near Fisk University in downtown Nashville.
And we had a teacher... a young man who taught us the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. We studied. We studied what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India. We studied Thoreau and civil disobedience. We studied the great religions of the world. And before we even discussed a possibility of a sit-in, we had role-playing. … There would be black and white young people, students, an interracial group, playing the roles of African Americans, or an interracial group playing the roles of whites. And we went through the motion of someone harassing you, calling you out of your name, pulling you out of your seat, pulling your chair from under you, someone kicking you or pretending to spit on you. Sometimes we did pour cold water on someone — never hot — but we went through the motion… we wanted to feel like they were in the actual situation, that this could happen. … So when the time came, we were ready. We were prepared.
MS. TIPPETT: I also read somewhere that you were trained, even if someone was attacking you, to look them in the eye, that there was something disarming for human beings.
REP. LEWIS: We did go through the motion, the drama, of saying that if someone kicks you, spits on you, pulls you off the lunch counter stool, continue to make eye contact. Continue to give the impression, “Yes, you may beat me, but I’m human. …You have to grow. It’s just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being…[even one that is persecuting you.]
…We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person — years ago, that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.”
“Be friendly, try to smile, and just stay nonviolent. And during the nonviolent campaign, in a city like Nashville and so many other parts of the American South, you never had one incident of someone striking back or hitting back. There were even people who would say, “I cannot go on the sit-ins. I cannot go on the freedom ride. I may not be disciplined enough.” But we were trained. When we left to go on the freedom ride, we were prepared to die for what we believed in. …The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you. I know Dr. King used to joke sometimes and say things like, “Just love the hell outta everybody. Just love ‘em.””
And John Lewis went out and put his training into practice, being the first person struck by police attempting to stop the March to Selma, on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, struck and nearly killed. And he never gave up on anyone, even his most determined persecutors. And how did he “love” them, as Dr. King abjured? Lewis says, “Suffering can be nothing more than a sad and sorry thing without the presence on the part of the sufferer of a graceful heart, an accepting, an open heart, a heart that holds no malice toward the inflictors of his or her suffering.” A baptismal practice indeed.
So if you plan a “Lenten discipline,” let it be something that helps you practice relishing the fact that God already loves you so much, God has already thrown the accounting book out the window. God is no longer keeping score. Jesus already died for your sins. Now it’s your turn to die into Christ. Me, my humble baptismal practice this Lent is to stop adding six more things to my day so I can prove to myself and everyone around me that I’m more capable than God’s own self! My Lenten discipline is to go to bed at a reasonable hour and get up at a reasonable hour and sit silently with God first thing in the morning and get absolutely NOTHING DONE in all those hours of sleep and silence! It might make a hash of my ridiculously over-ambitious life, but God will get a good giggle out of that! Because God might finally be able to get a word of grace in edgewise through all my self-congratulatory busyness!
And as Robert Farrar Capon says, “Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its [harmonies] to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears…” and join the jive and jitterbug. [Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace] HAPPY Ash Wednesday! Amen!