From Ashes to Blessings
Ash Wednesday March 5, 2003
This morning I participated in an act of Civil Disobedience as a way of protesting our nation’s plans to attack and make war against Iraq. Our Rector Emeritus, George Regas, 16 other people and I blocked traffic at the intersection of Los Angeles and Temple Streets in downtown Los Angeles, failed to disperse when the police told us we were in violation of the law, and after refusing to do so were arrested and taken to jail, booked, processed, and released.
After release I was waiting in the lobby of the Police station for the others to be released. I was still wearing liturgical vestments – black cassock, surplice, and stole because the Civil Disobedience action was for us an act of prayer and worship – a liturgical act. I was struck by how many people came up to me in the lobby and asked me if I had brought ashes to impose on their foreheads. I regretted not having some traveling kit full of ashes so that I could make the sign of the cross on their foreheads as we will do in a few moments in this liturgy. I apologized to each person, told them I had just gotten out of jail, and continued to wait for my friends.
Once again this Ash Wednesday I am reflecting on the powerful symbol of ashes and the desire so many of us have to receive the imposition of ashes on our foreheads each Ash Wednesday as a way of beginning our Journey through Lent to Easter. Once again I ponder, “What is the power in being reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return?”
“In ancient Israel the symbolism of ashes was understood to be a forceful reminder of the pervasiveness of human sin and of the inevitability of human death. Ashes represented that which, in the human experience, was burned out and wasted, that which once was but is no more.” (Brueggemann, et. al, Texts for Preaching, p. 182) Ashes symbolized sorrow, powerlessness, the fact that things are not right in the world and things are not right in our souls. Ashes symbolized the need to confess. And so in the development of Christian worship, the imposition of ashes came to be an emblem of grief and mourning and as a signal of our own sinfulness and our own mortality.
Prior to the act of civil disobedience this morning, we had an inter-faith service during which 200 or so protesters came forward to several containers being held by Angelenos of different faiths and different national backgrounds. We had been reminded that our world is now on the brink of so much destruction, the potential of which will be to render to ash human lives, human neighborhoods, and entire cities with a tactically chosen devastating force which if delivered will remind us of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While gazing at those containers of ashes I remembered standing in the pit at Ground Zero right after 9-11 and watching the ashes that from time to time would be stirred up by the wind while I watched hundreds of professionals cleaning up after that horrible moment of destruction. I remembered a conversation this past Monday with a City Councilman we are lobbying to vote for a resolution against the war when he said the bottom line cost of any war is empty chairs at the Thanksgiving Table. When his words brought that to mind all of a sudden my mouth was dry as if a meal had turned to ash.
At the interfaith service this morning Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists alike walked up to those containers of ash and while thinking of our own complicity in destructiveness and while thinking of our own common mortality, we scooped out a bit of ash and sprinkled it on our heads or on our clothes. There was something in that act like in the act we are about to engage in this liturgy that made me feel at the soul level that I was more grounded in reality, that I was touching the holy, that I was more a member of the human race.
Maybe that is why those people in the Police station lobby came up to me asking for the imposition of ashes. Maybe that is why tonight’s liturgy has so much power. Using ashes to confess our own complicity in what’s wrong in our lives and using ashes to remember our own common mortality helps us be more grounded and helps us join the very journey of God in Christ – the journey of joining the human race.
Within this journey there is another dimension I want to address – the dimension of sin. We have heard a great deal in recent months about evil. “Evildoers”, “good versus evil”, “evil incarnate”, “the axis of evil”, “you are either for us or against us” with the implication that if you are a good person you are for the U.S. and if you are against us you are evil. All of this talk presupposes that the world is made up of two very separate kinds of people – pure good and pure evil. This kind of dualism is running thin. It is a black and white perspective on the world that leads to dividing the world rather than uniting it. It is a mind set that sets the tribal over the human. It is a mentality that leads to oppression and domination and ends in war.
Traditionally, Episcopalians have stylistically thought that to talk about sin very much was a bit tacky – especially in cultural environments that saw sin as limited to personal sins of the flesh. But sin has always had levels of meaning from the personal to the political.
And now, more and more people are understanding an ancient truth. That truth is that when something goes miserably wrong the responsible analysis at least entertains a certain set of questions, “Did my choices, albeit well intentioned, have some unforeseen destructive, unjust or even violent impact on someone else?” “Is there possibly something I can learn about my own blindness, my own denial, my own issues, or my own insensitivity?” “As I am fighting to protect my way of life and what I consider “mine”, might it not serve the common good (be that common good my friendships, my family, my faith community, my city or nation, or this fragile earth our island home) – might it not serve the common good to ask whether my way of life might need amending? Or to use the language of Ash Wednesday, is there something in me and my behavior about which I need to confess and of which I need to repent?
You see the reality of life is that none of us is pure good or pure evil. The fault line of good and evil runs through every human heart. To use St. Paul’s language, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And when we step out of our denial of that reality; acknowledge that reality to God, ourselves and to another (preferably the one or ones our behavior has negatively impacted); and begin the journey of turning around, then our lives are much more grounded, much less destructive to self and others, and the experience of forgiveness, joy, and community becomes an existential reality. It really is a good and grounded thing to join the human race even when in joining the human race we have to see that all those we would rather not consider our brothers and sisters really are our brothers and sisters. When that insight hits in our depths we also get to experience the mercy and blessings that are ours when we confess our sins and experience God’s forgiveness.
The journey from ashes to Easter is precisely this uncomfortable journey of self-examination, and repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s word. This grounding journey of joining the human race leads us to confess our sins, open ourselves to God’s mercy and amendment of life, and commit ourselves then to resisting whatever demeans and dehumanizes life.
This morning I waited a long time for my friend, George Regas to be processed and released at the Police department. I was eager to hug his neck in freedom on this side of having crossed a new line in my resistance to injustice and violence. I later found out that he had been released right after I had been but had been escorted out the back door and had driven on home to Pasadena.
Meanwhile, I was standing in the Police Department lobby turning down employees and police department visitors coming up to me dressed in my cassock wanting me to impose ashes like the ashes I was wearing on my own forehead. Then I turned as I heard and saw 200 or more students from Lincoln High School walking down the sidewalk outside chanting, “No War, No War, No War.”
I walked out to the sidewalk to cheer them on. They reached the end of their sidewalk journey, turned around, and started walking back to class. Then an amazing thing happened. Spontaneously. After about half of them had passed me by, had given me the thumbs up sign, one student reached out to shake my hand, and then, the next student came over to me and said, “Please bless me.” Without thinking, I reached out and made the sign of the cross on his forehead. Then as if there had been some systematic order issued into the cosmos and instantaneously received by the rest of the line of students about 75 teenagers lined up behind the first one and said to me, “Bless me, please.” And as all these high school students filed by on their way back to class, I made the sign of the cross on each forehead and said with a lump in my throat, “God bless you.”
I believe that we all have a yearning deep in our being to have an experience that is an experience of connecting with the holy – the holy in ourselves, the holy in those around us, the holy in strangers, the Holy in the Cosmos. And from time to time on our journey of faith, if we will look within, see that both we and our enemies and adversaries are neither all bad nor all good, seeing that our own personal lives as well as our political lives need confession, need amendment, need reminding that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Then we really can be changed, we really can be made new – never to be the same again. And then, I further believe, we will receive a blessing, for, you see, our confession and God’s forgiveness, and God’s never leaving us the same that we were before is one of the great blessings of life. Then God will put us in surprising places where we can be further blessed and where we can be a blessing.
In this Holy Season of Lent may that be our journey – our journey as individuals, as a church, as a nation, and as a world – a journey of love, a journey of justice, a journey of peace, and a journey of blessing.
Posted on 2003-03-09