I attended an Ash Wednesday service today at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. It was everything I hoped it would be – very high-church, dripping with symbolism, the imposition of ashes, and participation in the Holy Eucharist. As a dye-in-the-wool Church of Christ boy, this formal celebration of Jesus and a pious participation in Lenten repentance was refreshing.
One thing I was not expecting was such a focus on mortality. At the imposition of ashes, the Celebrant rubbed an ash cross on each person’s forehead and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
That’s right; we’re all living, breathing, dirtbags. Not the pick-me-up most people are looking for during their lunch break. But, as I learned, it’s actually a crucial element to the Lenten season.
Lent was originally a period of fasting and repentance in preparation for baptism on Easter Sunday. Participants in Lent spent 40 days preparing themselves for their new life with Christ. And what better day to celebrate one’s new life than on Easter Sunday, the day celebrating the moment that all of creation was made new!
In the past, the Episcopalian tradition at the imposition of ashes was to say, “Remember that you are dust ONLY, and to dust you shall return.” But the “only” was dropped several years ago because it was believed to have contributed to a spirit counter to resurrection. Without Jesus, sure, we’re ONLY dust, and to dust we will return. But, because of the resurrection, we are MORE THAN dust, and we will be MORE THAN dust at the final resurrection of all things.
And THAT’S the pick-me-up we all came to hear!
My (informal) Lenten journey this year involves fasting from all social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I often find myself preoccupied with what people are saying about me, how many people liked my status or retweeted my awesome picture of the burrito I was eating. Fasting from social media isn’t about saving time (though that will certainly be an added benefit). Instead, it’s about getting my heart right. It’s about reorienting myself in God’s Kingdom instead of my own. I say all the time that we are never further from Jesus than when we’re being selfish, and social media has become a self-glorifying medium for growing further and further from Jesus.
I am also studying the book of Isaiah over the next 40 days. Isaiah seems to be a book Jesus loved, and for good reason. Isaiah is often called “The 5th Gospel” because of its abundance of redemption passages and images of God restoring and resurrecting his people. Today I read and studied the first five chapters. Man, oh man, is it AWESOME!
The first five chapters are a flash-forward to the things God is GOING to do to the people of Judah because of their sin. And what was their sin? Injustice! The leaders of the nation were getting filthy rich off laws and loopholes that allowed them to exploit the poor and further-marginalize the marginalized. Widows and orphans and poor people were being left out in the cold – sometimes literally – and God had seen enough. So from the start he shows all his cards, he tells all the reasons why he’s angry with his people, and all the things that are going to happen to them, both good and bad. His anger is fueled by their injustice:
See how the faithful city [JERUSALEM] has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her – but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. (1:21-24)
Their punishment – Assyrian exile – was all because they were corrupt, favoring the rich and exploiting the poor. They developed a system that kept the rich rich and the poor poor.
But God had – and still has – a vision for what his people will someday be:
In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple [JERUSALEM] will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and ALL NATIONS will stream to it…
The word here for “all nations” is “goyim.” Goyim is typically a derogatory word used in reference to everyone who was not from Israel or Judah. Like the way your grandfather talks about “foreigners” with a little spite. That’s goyim. The Law of Moses spoke harshly about the goyim and warned the Israelites against falling into cahoots with anyone outside their own nation. Goyim were the outsiders that God’s people spent their lives avoiding.
But here, Isaiah says that God’s vision for all of creation is that one day all nations – all the goyim – will come to the Mountain of the Lord in Jerusalem. This means everybody on earth, including both the rich and the poor. They will come not out of fear, not out of obligation, but because God has something no other nation and no other god has. Here’s what he offers:
The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations [GOYIM] and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
The people – the GOYIM – will come because there will be unsolvable disputes. War and violence and death will have run so rampant that nobody will know what to do anymore. There will be no answers and no peace. No government or judge or arbiter can settle the violence and destruction. And on that day when the world is on the brink of total destruction, all the nations will turn to God and say, “Help!” And God’s answer, God’s solution, God’s ruling, will be to lay down the weapons and end all the violence. To turn weapons of violence into tools of rebirth and resurrection. God’s law will be a law of peace and renewal. And, as one people, the whole world will walk in the light of the Lord.
The problem in Isaiah, though, is that God’s dream of seeing the whole world come together as one is thwarted because his people refuse to lead the way. If God’s own people won’t act in ways that lead to peace and unity of all people, how in the world can anyone else be expected to?
The next few chapters are loaded with destruction and punishment for Judah’s corruption and neglect of the poor and marginalized. God has to rid his nation of everything that prevents his dream from becoming reality. So the rulers and leaders of Judah will be driven into exile, and some of them killed. While this might sound counter to God’s dream of peace and love, it’s necessary in order to see the dream fulfilled.
Our mortal selves are prone to chase after what’s temporary – money, power, sex, pleasure, self-gratification. But Easter brings something new, something better. Easter brings God’s vision for earth into a much clearer focus. At the start of this Lent season, may God’s vision become our vision. May we be a people who bring about peace no matter the color of one’s skin or the number of zeros in their bank account. May we be a people who lay down our weapons of violence – be they physical, emotional, or spiritual – and become a people who fulfill the dream of God.
Together, may we all walk in the light of the Lord.