|Tamar - Marc Chagall|
Any. Time. Any. Place.
Before Jesus went out into the wilderness for "forty days and forty nights" - the length of time of our 'modern' Lent - he didn't have John smear ashes on his head. Indeed, he went there "immediately" after he had been baptized.
In the Gospel chosen for the Day (Matthew 6:1-6,16-21), Jesus is pretty clear about the whole business of fasting and ashes:
"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".Truth be told, I've always sorta side-stepped the issue in Ash Wednesday sermons. I've sometimes confidently muttered things like, "Well, it's an ancient practice we see in Scripture. It's a way to signify the practice of repentance and/or mourning. It has come to signify our mortality."
Well, while that's all true, the practice still nags at me, all these years later.
So, I did a bit of a word study/search for ashes in Scripture. I found a few sources, like Job 2:8 "Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes".
And, Esther 4:1 "When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly".
I also found it in Daniel 9:3 "So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes".
I even found it in Matthew 11:21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes."
But it was the Rape of Tamar, "the beautiful sister" of Absalom, son of David, by Amnon, the son of David, that took my breath away (2 Samuel 13).
Now, Amnon lusted after Tamar and had devised a way to lure the virgin woman into his bedroom by pretending to be sick. When Tamar went to feed him the bread she had made, Amnon grabbed her hand, pulled her into bed and raped her.
Then, he sent her away.
“No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.” But he refused to listen to her.The story ends like this: "And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman".
He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.” So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing an ornate robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.
Takes your breath away, right?
Interesting, that we "make" ashes - at least these days for liturgical use - by burning last year's palms from the Sunday of Passion.
Mordecai was deeply grieving. Daniel and Job were truly repenting. Tamar, however, was mortified, deeply ashamed about what had been done to her, as well as grieving what had been stolen from her.
That's not what Jesus was talking about. Jesus said, "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."
So, it's not about getting ashes just to get ashes and let everyone know that you went to church. It's about an outward and visible sign of your inward and spiritual grief, repentance and/or mortification or humiliation.
It's about intention. It's about sincerity. And, authenticity.
Which is why I'm still uncomfortable - ambivalent, really - with the whole idea about taking ashes to the streets.
The ENS headline in yesterday's article read: CHICAGO: Ash Wednesday rites will be taken to the streets and railway stations. Apparently, "More than two dozen congregations, stretching from Chicago to Dixon, will be taking the Ash Wednesday rite of imposition of ashes to the streets, coffee houses and transit stations of their communities on Ash Wednesday, March 9."
She brought the idea to her Vestry, thinking that maybe they could begin taking Ashes to the Commuter Train Station where her people were. Next year. Maybe.The Vestry got so excited that they started the program nine days later.
This year, it's a diocesan-wide event.
The article states:
Taking the Ash Wednesday rite to the streets is modeling what Jesus did in his ministry, said Mellott. As she notes in her introduction to the Ashes to Go: Liturgical Outreach resources, Jesus preached, healed and taught in the public space where the people in need of a sign of hope were. Ashes, she says, "belong to the public spaces and the daily work of our lives, not just to the times and spaces of the regular worshipping community."Really? Is that what they're doing? 'Wearing their faith in public'?
As a tool for evangelism it provides a powerful symbol of the church's commitment to meet and engage people in their daily lives, a message that struck home for members of her parish last year, said Mellott. "Several parishioners and others have told me that what matters to them about the ashes is the ability to wear their faith in public, in all the ordinary, everyday things they do. And there's not much more everyday in nature than commuting."
Is that what Jesus meant when he said, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also"?
I suppose some are. Probably many of her parishioners. But, what of the others?
Or, is this what Jesus meant when he said, "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"?
I guess my biggest problem is not that "Ashes to Go" happens out in public, on a commuter train, but that it does not happen within the context of prayer, much less liturgy. Or, community.
I apologize. I'm a priest. Calling a community of faith to prayer is really important to me.
Yes, Jesus met people where they were, doing the everyday things of ordinary life. He taught and healed in public - right in front of God and everybody.
Near as I can figure, he didn't have a Temple of his own. Didn't keep office hours. Didn't show up at Temple every Sabbath. Didn't hand out business cards or carry a sign. Didn't even wear identifiable clerical garb.
But, scripture doesn't report that he smudged ashes on anyone's forehead or instructed anyone to wear sackcloth. Indeed, the only time he reportedly spoke of ashes or sackcloth was as a rebuke to the communities of the Galilean villages of Chorazin and Bethsaida which did not repent in response to his teachings.
Pretty serious stuff.
Look, I'm not saying anything or anyone is right or wrong, good or bad. I'm confessing my discomfort and ambivalence with this practice. Who am I to say how God may work the commuter crowd or patrons of coffee houses and folks on the streets in Chicago or St. Louis or Boston or LA?
God can work through the ashes of our mortality. God can also work through the ashes of old palms - whether they are distributed in fine cathedrals, humble country churches, gritty inner city parishes or on the platform of a commuter train station.
I'm far from a biblical literalist. I don't think it's helpful to take a contextual situation from antiquity and try to use it as an exact template for our post-modern world. That's a bit like taking a Date Palm Tree and trying to get it to grow in the rugged soil of Vermont.
For me, it's not just about what Jesus said or didn't say. It's not about what he did or didn't do - might or might not have done.
I keep hearing Job's desolation. And, Mordecai's wailing. And, Daniel's pleading.
I just can't get the image of Tamar's ashes out of my head.