Ash Wednesday, Year B
Jl 2:1-2,12-17 or Is 58:1-12
2 Cor 5:20b-6:10
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near– a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.
Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule
and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’"
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
(2 Corinthians 5:20-21)
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
(2 Corinthians 6:1-10)
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no bstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness
for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see–we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
"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 whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward
"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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The SM (Sermon on the Mount) is one of the most delicately woven discourses of Christian antiquity. As text developed in a community reflecting on its life together and the call to be disciples of Jesus, it is virtually without peer in the New Testament. It has attracted many from different faiths and different walks of life.
The SM occupies a unique place in Matthew’s gospel as the first extended discourse. The SM also occupies a somewhat distinctive place in the history of Christianity, particularly among those who have sought to live out its communal implications. Any time we approach this discourse, therefore, we do so with the awareness of just how powerful a witness it is to the Peacemaking God who blesses the peacemakers.
In the texts for Ash Wednesday are careful correctives in spiritual direction. The dangers of mimesis lurk even in and around our worship. Jesus details three areas that can prove dangerous: giving, praying, and fasting or repenting. In each of these, examples are given of ‘bad’ mimesis and ‘good’ mimesis. In no case is Jesus criticizing the faith of Judaism.
In each case, the person critiqued expresses their faith in relation to others.
“Look at me, I’m so generous.’
‘Look at me, I’m pious.’
‘Look at me, I’m so sorry.’
In each case the action that is done is done for the purpose of soliciting a response from the collective. If the practice of faith is to elicit a positive response from people and the practice of faith achieves such responses, then as Jesus points out, the goal is reached, “they have their reward.” It is not that God will not be gracious to them; it is that they cannot receive what they cannot perceive.
Jesus is critiquing the practice therefore, of religion, not faith. Spirituality expressed in religious terms and forms will always be directed to mimetic desire, and in each of these cases the ‘narrated figure’ who is criticized has directed her/his spirituality into the channel of mimetic desire so that the collective opinion forms a core identity. Jesus calls these figures ‘hypocrites.’
We would note that ‘hypocrites’ is the term applied to actors in the ancient world, particularly where masks were involved. ‘Hypocrites’ is a term Jesus may have been familiar with from the practice of drama in neighboring Sepphoris and Capernaum. If so there is a metaphor in his thinking that yields interesting results in light of mimetic theory.
The truly religious person, the actor, (‘hypocrite’) is split between the person they know themselves to be and the person others tell them they are. This metaphoric split is an indication of the rupture of religion and its inability to really make us whole. We think that the distinction Jung makes between the persona and the shadow is helpful here. Our persona is the way we wish to be perceived and our shadow is the side unknown to ourselves but often perceived by others. Those aspects we know of our own shadow, we do not wish others to know about, thus we put on ‘masks’ in public, particularly when it comes to public participation in the divine drama of worship.
Dan O. Via Jr., (Self Deception and Wholeness in Paul and Matthew) puts it this way: “If the hypocrite is not consciously and cynically pretending, he is still responsible for being unconscious of the dichotomy between self-image and reality. The hypocrite may not intend to deceive others, but he does lack integrity, correspondence between inner and outer, and is responsible for the deficiency because he has concealed the true nature of the inner person from himself.”
Hypocrisy is a dangerous subject to raise in the church, it is almost always experienced accusatorily, that is, in a satanic fashion. If we use any other model than Jesus to discuss hypocrisy, if we bring up Mr. Jones or Mrs. Smith or Saint Bill or anybody, we will inevitably doom our people to religious practice. They will have felt the accusation and they will respond out of fear. For Christians, there really is a singular model to follow when it comes to knowing how to live our faith. There is one who has gone the road from baptism with water to baptism with fire and he still brings the message of God’s peace, just like he always has.
The practice of faith as ‘religion before others’ serves a two-fold purpose: first it indicates identification with the divine and second, it creates a hierarchical structure where religious practice can be mimetically compared and imitated. Soren Kierkegaard named the dangers and the emptiness of this practice in his book, Either/Or. It is insidious because it determines itself in relation to the ‘other’ in the guise of relation to the ‘Other.’
The lie of self to the self stems from the founding lie that creates the myth of the victim’s guilt. Thus, in our own individual religious experience, we become our own prosecutor, judge, jury, victim and executioner (we call this our conscience). And each step in the process is revealed as false, as a lie. Whether repenting, praying or giving, spirituality is the way we express our relationship with the Father in our relations with others, not in the way we show others our relationship with God.
The desire for recognition is apparent in all three misguided attempts at faith. In the first, the almsgiver desires to seen and known as a benefactor, a good person. In the second, the worshipper seeks to be perceived as faithful to God. In the third, the repentant sinner seeks to be known as a self-flagellent.
In all three cases we can perceive an attempt at differentiation from the masses of humanity. In all three cases, this differentiation sacralizes the figure. The almsgiver desires adoration, the worshipper admiration, the sinner respect. In each case, the religious practitioners have identified themselves with what they believe the divine desires, namely adoration, admiration and respect. By so differentiating themselves, they ‘dedicate themselves to God’ and are thus rendered less likely to be picked out in the random lottery of the scapegoat mechanism. That role is left to others more deserving of that honor due no doubt to their distance from God, from the sacred.
We do not note any significant historical or cultural issues that the text raises (if one follows the lectionary reading and omits the Lord’s Prayer). We feel compelled to mention again that Jesus is not critiquing the Jewish practice of faith, but the religious, and therefore, mimetic practice of faith. Jesus (and Matthew’s readers) takes for granted the actual practice of the disciplines of giving, praying and repenting.
‘Prosekete’ has the sense of being on guard, being aware that even the most dedicated pious intentions are so easily led astray from their purpose to become self-serving. We might do well to recall Luther’s quip that ‘the heart is turned in on itself.’
What then are we to do with the common practice on Ash Wednesday of the Imposition of Ashes? It is a dangerous thing to suggest that most of our congregants seriously rethink their participation.
It is unfortunate that there is no visible difference between Joe who wears his ashes to show others his piety or because he simply thinks it’s expected, and Josephine who does it as a way of imitating Jesus’ humility, of living her finiteness. Perhaps we can emphasize the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” If every time I see someone look at my forehead with recognition, I remind myself that I am dust, and bound to return to it, I can at least help to become aware of my own mimetic habits.
That may be a good theme for all of Lent. Simply taking seriously the business of becoming aware of our own mimetic behaviors, of overcoming the “split” that we discussed in the “anthropological” segment of this page. The more of our own mimesis we can own during Lent, the more Jesus can transform at the resurrection…
There is great theater every Sunday morning in churches all over the planet. People come with their religious masks on, demonstrating their generosity, their piety and their dedication to God. They think they need to be seen. But inside they have no peace. Inside they are tearing themselves to shreds over secret sins and missed opportunities, and their self hatred ‘runneth over’ into their relationships. But because the church has taught them the practice of religion rather than that of faith, rest assured that come Sunday morning everything will appear to be fine, and no one will be the wiser.
We are reminded of the saying “religion is for those trying to stay out of hell, spirituality is for those who’ve been there.” There really is a fundamental practice of Christian faith that goes so far beyond attending church it is remarkable. That practice consists of simply treating others as we are treated by the Creator. And to do so in an unassuming manner, as the Creator does.
“There are no such things as coincidence, it is just God maintaining anonymity” (12 Step saying).
But (and here is the real heartbreaker in the text) we are not called to determine the sincerity of the other person’s expression of faith, we are enjoined to do a self-examination. In order for Jesus to get us to break the bad habits of mimetic spirituality, he must first expose our play acting. When this occurs and we see the ‘falseness’ of our own religious expressions, this exposure is humbling. Only within that humbled state can we practice our faith as the way we relate to others and not simply what we construct as beliefs and in so doing discover the power of forgiveness and love.
Jesus understood the singularity of his imitation of the Creator and knew that the Creator has far more to offer us than the silly practice of piety for show. Faith is not a ‘fake it till you make it’ construct. Faith is the wonderful awareness given us to see God all around us and in us and expressed through all creation, lived in Jesus. All we must do……….is………………open…………….our…………..…eyes.
It is usual for Christian preachers to call the Church to repentance on Ash Wednesday. And usually this is a reference to moral repentance. This being the case I am all the more stunned that in these past three years that ‘Christianity’ which supports war has not yet repented. I am glad for the work of Rose Gentle, Cindy Sheehan and others and wonder if the church has abdicated it’s responsibility when ‘non-Christians’ are calling for national repentance regarding the war.
Even more so are the astonishing ways by which we American Christians have become hypocrites in the eyes of the world. We are quick to remove the splinter from the eyes of others but slow, painfully slow, to recognize the forest in our own eyes. I think here of the ease by which the current administration issues calls for Islam to shed it’s ‘violent’ character without ever once mentioning the possibility that the violent character of our foreign policy might also merit repentance. Have we so assimilated ourselves to the ‘Constantinian solution’ of might makes right? Have we forgotten that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, not through the use of force but through the use of non-resistant strategies?
I want to weep for my country, I want to weep for the church, but my eyes are dry and I have become cynical these past years. I guess I need to repent of my cynicism and once again continue to believe that God loves all people, Americans and Christians included.
When the priest makes the sign of the cross on my forehead I will be reminded once again of my allegiance to Jesus, the servant who rules, who gives his life as a ransom for humanity and so will go forth in hope. Thanks be to God who forgives our sin.