Prior to the 11th century, if you desired to “convert” to Christianity, you spent 40 days of instruction and penitence. Penitence involves grief over one’s sinfulness, a desire to repent (turn away) from those sins, and, most importantly, a desire for a new identity, a fresh start. That forty day period came to be called “Lent” - from West Germanic langitinaz, meaning "long-days," or "lengthening of the day". Spring is approaching, the days are, in fact, getting longer, and if you’re fasting during those 40 days, which those penitents desiring to convert were, those days feel especially long. Why start on Wednesday? Because every Sunday is considered a “little Easter”, even during Lent, which means that you don’t have to fast on Sundays. That’s why, if you hear that Lent is 40 days, you look confusedly at the calendar because there are more than 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The Sundays don’t count. Now you know.
Back to pre-11th-century penitence and conversion. Your schedule looks like this: Day 1 (Ash Wednesday): You’re doused in ashes. Not a neat little smudge or sign of the cross traced on your forehead. You’re covered. And you stay that way for 40 days. Not only do you not eat, you don’t bathe. You stay covered in ashes. The ashes symbolize your recognition that you are mortal and that before you experience spiritual new life, you must go through a spiritual death. Before you rise again out of your ashes, you have to die. Then comes day 40 (we’re counting days from sunset to sunrise, I’ll explain some other time). At sunset of day 40, the Easter Vigil begins. At Easter vigil, you’re baptized. And just like the ashes weren’t just a sprinkle, the water of baptism wasn’t just a sprinkle. You went all the way in. You were immersed. Three times. When you come up out of the water the third time, no more ashes. No more deathiness. You are clean and you have a new life. Pretty powerful, gritty symbols. We could do worse in the Church than recapturing that level of commitment and symbolism. Iconoclasts in Christianity don’t like symbolism. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that they think they don’t like symbolism when what they really don’t like is ancient symbolism and they do like the system of symbols they’ve thunk up on their own. But that’s for another time, too.
Back to the penitence, and deathliness, and being washed clean, and new life. One of the readings from the Hebrew Bible for Ash Wednesday is Isaiah 58:1-12. That excites me because my personal “mission statement” comes from Isaiah 58, verse 12: “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” If you have time to read Isaiah 58 today – it’s all of 14 verses – please do. It would be even better if you read Isaiah 59, too. Three things worth noticing:
God is telling this particular audience that all the fasting and rituals in the world don’t mean a thing if they don’t result in transformation. God’s not saying fasting and rituals are bad. God's saying that fasting and rituals that don’t lead to transformation are useless.
There’s a whole lot about justice in Isaiah 58. The “fast” God says that God chooses looks like this: “To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free...to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor [or the poor wanderer] into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them...to satisfy the needs of the afflicted.”
For those of us who want to observe and practice Ash Wednesday, it looks like we might want to think about who fills those categories – hungry, poor wanderer/homeless poor, those who don’t have enough to even buy clothes to protect themselves from the elements, afflicted. There’s no mistaking that God is saying that those are the ones upon whom we’re to focus our concern, love and action. In fact, God says that the reason we might be uncertain of God’s presence among us or wondering where God’s power is, it’s because we’re neither focused on the ones nor doing the work of caring for the ones about whom God is most concerned. God also seems to intimate that when we do focus on them and engage in the work of relieving their suffering, we’ll see God all over the place. (That’s why reading on into Isaiah 59 is helpful - God doubles down on that idea).
Third thing worth noticing and contemplating: We USAmerican Christians are not unified in our concepts of what constitutes being a “good” or “faithful” Christian. “Ain’t nobody right but us” is the typical refrain from different groups of Christians. Our country, indeed our world, reflects this binariness. It’s now a blinding flash of the obvious to point out that we don’t agree on what constitutes a good citizen or a bad one, a patriot or traitor, good politics, good policy vs. bad politics, bad policy. We’re divided. The solution for a long time now has been to shut down. If we see it differently, whatever “it” is, I won’t talk to you and you won’t talk to me, unless it’s shouting and name calling and disparagement of each other’s ideas. There are some ideas that need to be disparaged. Ideas that are racist or misogynistic or xenophobic and violent need to be called for what they are. But even then, those who hold those ideas need to be engaged beyond the level of intolerance for their ideas. They need to be drawn into dialogue. We need to be drawn into dialogue with them. Nothing changes if you don’t show up. That’s what’s going on in Isaiah 58. It’s a dialogue between God and a particular group of people. The people clearly have ideas that God chooses to disparage. Yet, God doesn’t abandon the conversation. Instead, God stays in the conversation offering not only an alternative idea, but offering a promise: Be just and merciful in these certain ways I’m laying out for you and you will be called repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets to live in, and light will shine and you will be raised to new heights.
I like the way the great public intellectual and theologian Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it: “The single greatest mistake, and it’s been made many times in history, is to believe that peace is a zero-sum game. If I win, you lose. If I suffer, you gain. It isn’t so. The truth is the opposite. From violence both sides suffer. From peace, both sides gain. That is why no one does a service to peace by demonizing one side and making heroes of the other. Peace is a duet scored for two voices; and someone who thinks that one voice can win by drowning out the other just hasn’t understood what a duet is.”
My first prayer is that we let ourselves be doused in ashes today and that they serve as an acknowledgement that all of us, on all of sides of the divide, risk becoming, and in fact, do become disordered in our love (St. Augustine’s definition of sin). We could acknowledge, too, that our disordered love too easily leads to separation, division, disregard, hate, and deathliness. Maybe forty days of contemplating our own disorderedness could be a useful exercise and represents a small price to pay. Whatever your faith or system of belief and values is, my second prayer is that, after your “40 days” of such contemplation, there comes an Easter Vigil for you, a cleansing and rebirth, that enables you and me and all of us to begin singing that duet of peace that is scored for two voices times infinity, and that we no longer drown one another out but, rather, understand what a duet is.