Today's first reader and I were discussing last night today’s reading from Isaiah: Its tone is harsh, God is sarcastic, specifically about the religious behaviors of the people, lying down in sackcloth and ashes. God is basically accusing the people of merely playing at living the covenant, of pretending righteousness, while they oppress their workers and ignore the starving. In other, more strident places in this prophet and others, God says when he smells the burnt sacrifices of the Israelites, their injustice makes him want to throw up.
Jesus today is equally straightforward about “piety”: Don’t pray where others can see you. Don’t fast in ways that others know it. Don’t give money in a way that draws attention to yourself. All of which must seem like the most ignored advice Jesus ever gave, since today we will put ashes on our faces, and gather to pray together in public (as we often do). And as for money, well, not only do we take a public collection, our church is literally covered with the names of people who have given money to the church, as is every university campus, hospital, and most other charitable institutions.
So if both the God of Israel and Jesus are telling us not to do these things, why are we doing them? Wouldn’t it be better if we started Ash Wednesday searching out the homeless, or agitating with the Fight for Fifteen workers, or for that matter, spending every Sunday morning in the soup kitchen, instead of in church?
Oddly enough, we do these things because God has asked us to: After all, the same covenant that demands justice for immigrants and widows and orphans also is heavy on descriptions of how to eat with God, how to do penance for failure to live up to the covenant, and how to do all that stuff in public, in community. All those sacrifices were the outward signs, communal acknowledgments, of every Israelite’s and of all Israel’s dependence on God.
And Jesus never says that we shouldn’t fast, or give alms, or pray— in fact we need to do them to be shaped in the ways of justice and mercy. None of them is optional. The issue is that they must be done with integrity.
Integrity—there’s the rub—and it’s opposite, hypocrisy. And the difference between them is simply whether our religious practices have their intended effect: whether both our insides —our spirits, our minds, our wills— and our outsides —both our own behaviors and the society they create and shape— are transformed by the religion we practice.
And I think that makes Lent really hard, because it is a 40-day-long invitation to examine ourselves for integrity as people of faith. And that kind of examination is bound to turn up problems.
We celebrate Eucharist every Sunday, for example, a ritual meal that enacts what God intends for food, and by extension what God intends for all the material things that sustain life. Every Sunday we enact in ritual God’s vision of the world, in which everyone has enough, even the same amount, with some left over, all fed from the same table as one family.
How is that Sunday-by-Sunday celebration transforming our attitudes about food, how it is produced and allocated, about how it is shared and not? How is that Sunday-by-Sunday celebration changing how we actually share food? How does it change the way we interact with those around us about food, or about any of the created goods that God intends for us all to share? I imagine if Isaiah were around today, he might have something to say about the integrity of the church’s, and this church’s, celebration of the Eucharist.
We celebrate baptism to initiate new members, and we routinely renew our baptismal covenant of commitment to the life of faith and works of justice. And every time we do so we affirm the goodness and belovedness of every human being and of all creation.
How is that celebration of baptism shaping our hearts to see in every person the image of Christ, and to serve Christ in every person. How is the celebration of that sacrament healing us of the prejudice, the racism, the sexism, all those attitudes baked into our culture, that thwart the full expression of God’s image in so many? And how is that celebration of baptism shaping our response to the world around us, whether our society’s use and consumption of the earth, or the violence and poverty and prejudice that continue to disfigure the image of Christ? I think the prophet Isaiah might have something to say to us about baptism, too.
The long and short of it, I guess, is that Lent, taken seriously, is not an easy journey. It definitely shouldn’t be attempted alone, which I imagine is one reason why gather together, in public, despite Jesus’ warnings, to pray, and to fast, and to put ash on our foreheads. And for me those ashes, accepted in public, as part of a community, help make this Lenten journey both easier and harder to bear.
They make it easier because they help me remember that I am dust: fallible, fragile, limited, mortal. There’s no way I’m ever going to “achieve” perfect integrity, and no one knows that better than God. I will always be on the way, and eventually, my time will be up. God has other partners who can take up where I left off, or make up for my limits. That’s one reason is why I am glad we are doing this together, because it reminds me that none of this depends on me alone.
And as for the harder part of these Lenten ashes, well, as Kristin points out often, life is short, and we have only so much time to try to live with integrity. And it’s worth trying, because it matters to God, evidently a great deal, and it matters to the world God loves, evidently a great deal. To receive these ashes with you is to commit myself with you to keep trying, in Lent and outside it. How grateful I am not to have to bear this burden alone.