Ash Wednesday Service
What do we do with great and grim TV? Who wants to come home after a hard day and watch something depressing? Unless perhaps it makes one’s own life look better by comparison? I have in mind a television series, one of the best is called ‘Chernobyl.’ It tells the tale of the worst nuclear power disaster in history, but it is also about all the self-serving avoidance, ideology, and finger pointing in the wake of the accident. Trouble was that the neutrons and photons don’t care about our agenda. The reactions continued, and the deadly pollution continued to spread. Underneath the human words and plots, reality marches on. Finally came a few courageous people who were willing to deal with the waste from the disaster at great personal cost. I leave it to you to think of other issues where something moves apace in spite of our special pleading: interest on the national debt would be my example, since compound interest knows no political party. Or think of an epidemic, where the virus has no interest in political posturing or positions.
Lent is about self-examination, and the purpose of self-examination is humility, and another way to say humility is honesty. The point of Lent is not self-flagellation nor obsession with would, couldas, and certainly not with showing ourselves to be humble, an example of which we see in the Gospel, but only this, honesty before God. Lent is about seeing how things really are, with ourselves, and with the world. But of course really looking at the truth of things is hard. We need the reassurance of the Gospel, our God’s love for us who are quite undeserving of it, to have the courage to see things as they are. The ancient Greeks had a word for using words and subtle thoughts to obscure reality, it was ‘sophistry,’ which has the same root as the word for ‘wisdom’, but is the opposite. Only by grace can we come to use these same tools to see how we and the world really are. When in Navajoland, I had a senior warden who once said to me, ‘you Bilagaana, you white people, turn things this way and that, and before you know it black and white all turn into gray.’ And this is not only true of Bilagaana.
Lent is about honesty, which means seeing how things are, the crack that runs through them, as the late Leonard Cohen said, and how it runs through us and how we collude with the cracking. The bible gives words that are an antidote to words as distraction and manipulation.
On the somber day of atonement, in front of the synagogue, the rabbi falls to the grounds in sheer self-abasement. See such an example, the cantor, prostrates himself next to the rabbi. Overcome by all this, the janitor falls to the floor next to them. At which point the rabbi turns his head to the cantor and says ‘so look who thinks he’s humble!’ This brings me to today’s Gospel, from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus critiques using ritual to promote ourselves instead of humbling ourselves, and so it would seem to promote an inward kind of religion shorn of public displays. Jesus surely does want a deep contrition inside us and away from the gaze of others. But we should also seek to make our religious practice, including our liturgical and churchly lives together, more and more aligned to reality. We should go deeper and deeper into the word of God, heard and displayed, so that we see there more and more the reality of how things are. For ‘dust you are’ is real, it is honest, and the spiritual life is being freed by grace from our illusory selves so that we dwell before God in a way more and more honest about who we are and what our world is. We can only do this with a daily therapeutic of the word of grace from God so that we can face it. What we are to put away, according to Jesus, is the self-deceiving self, the self-manipulative self. Only then do we see how we live in a world we have made to be ashes, and in spite of this how we can by the sheer gift of grace anoint our heads. The prodigal is the honest, finally, and then in the story, his father, of his own initiative, runs to embrace him.
Well, I have spoiled most of Chernobyl, so why not go ahead and give away all the plot. A young and pregnant woman learns her fireman husband has been badly exposed and taken off to a hospital in Moscow. She seeks him out, and then violates the protocols by hugging and then caring for him. She is exposed badly but does not die. She carries her child to term, who is still born. It turns out that the child has absorbed all the radiation himself, and his death means the survival of the mother, who goes on against all odds to have another child. It is a terrible and beautiful parable about consequences, vicarious suffering, and grace.
As with all the Christian life, Lent is only secondarily about us, and so secondarily about contrition. It is really about Jesus Christ, who saw all reality, since he made it all, and enacted the deeper reality, that God owns this cracked world and runs to meet us. That too is reality that human self-deception cannot undo. And he does it by coming and absorbing the harm into himself so that we walk away free. Listen to the key verse from St. Paul in our epistle reading: ‘he who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God.’ Only after he is embraced, I reckon, could the prodigal spend the rest of his days realizing, by contrast who he really had become. The prodigal’s life, the Lenten life, real life, that mother’s life, are then lives of recovery, and of gratitude. Amen.