Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ash Wednesday (A,B,C)

Ash Wednesday (A,B,C)
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103; II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew6:1-6, 16-21

The writer of the Book of Joel sets off an "alarm" for "all the inhabitants of the land...."  "The Lord is coming, it is near...."  A time of deep "darkness" will accompany the arrival of a "great and powerful army...."  In this moment of crisis, "return to me," says the Lord, your God, "with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning."  "Return to the Lord your God," who is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing."  Announce a fast with the blast of a "trumpet."  Gather all the people, young and old, including infants, even summon the bride and groom from their honeymoon.  The priests should station themselves "between the vestibule and the altar" in the Temple and "weep," saying: "Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery..."


The text of ('third") Isaiah attacks the hypocrisy of those who participate in acts of penance "("fast"), but "serve your own interests... and oppress all your workers."  It also introduces an innovative definition of penance: the kind of penance the Lord wants is "to loose the burden of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free..."  More specifically, "to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your home...."  The consequence: "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly...."  Now, when you call on the Lord, the Lord will answer.   The text repeats for emphasis the specific acts of justice that will produce "light."  This will be the source of strength (strong "bones") and renewal ("a watered garden").  New structures will be built on old foundations.  Then  you will earn a new reputation: "repairer of the breach," the restorer of "safe streets."

According to the psalmist, the Lord knows intimately our failings and limits, but the Lord's compassion for us is limitless.

Paul offers his life as an example of the way the paradox ("foolishness") of the gospel actually works in real life. "...As poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything."

  Only Matthew's Jesus provides some unique warnings about hypocrisy while maintaining specific instructions for "piety,", as the prophets did before him-- generosity to others in need, fasting and prayer.  Do not do these things in any ways that they might redound to your self-image or reputation.  Rather, do them in "secret," because they are what the Lord asks us to do.

Several postmodern thinkers have grappled with the themes in these biblical texts appointed for the first day of Lent, especially Marion, Levinas and Derrida. Their work establishes that seeking to act justly to others is a unilateral gift and sacrifice with no expected return. John Milbank engages in dialogue with them and offers a response in overtly Christian language. (See for example "The Midwinter Sacrifice," in Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, Graham Ward, ed., pp 107-130) Seeing justice for others is one's only hope of salvation, or even specifically, one's resurrection! Practicing justice is its own reward not in some petty calculation of reciprocity, but in an open, generous "economy" of grace from God to us and then from one person to another.

These biblical texts fault all schemes of morality that promise some form of tit-for-tat. They insist that the only adequate response to our failings is a particular kind of repentance-- feed, clothe, advocate-- as personal response to the grace we have received. Participating in specific actions of justice for others is literally our salvation!


One of the most productive concepts in Heidegg
er's work is die Eigenlichkeit. Given the many misinterpretations, the very useful summary and clarification given by William Blattner might be timely for this beginning of Lent (Heidegger's Being and Time, New York: Continuum Publishing, 2006). Although it has traditionally been translated as 'authenticity', Blattner suggests "ownedness' and writes:

Thus to be resolute, to own one's self, is not a matter of finding one's true self and insisting upon it, at least not in any conventional sense of those terms. After all, whoever one might take one's 'true self' to be can be overtaken by the world. What is more, and perhaps worse, one can die to that self by slipping into a depression that wrenches it away from one. To have found oneself and and won oneself is in some cases to stick with one who has been heretofore and so do so in the face of daunting social pressure, while in some cases it is to adapt flexibility to a new world or new dispositions. To win oneself is, in and of itself, neither to stick with who one has been or to 'wear the world's clothes lightly.' Rather, to find oneself and win oneself is to see what is factically possible and important to carry through with it, whatever its relation to who has been heretofore might be. We can put this point by saying that the self one must find and win is one who is at this moment, but we cannot let the language of 'moments' (Augenblicke) mislead us. Just as who I have-been is not who I have been, in the sense of the phases of my life that have gone by, so the moment of vision of which Heidegger writes ... is not the now clock-time, a tipping point between what has gone by and what is to come. This moment of vision, which might better be called a 'moment of resolution,' encompasses who I find myself and am able to go forward as. (pp 166-167)
God's unrelenting forgiveness

It is what God does after Moses' encounter with God on Mt. Sinai and he returns carrying the tablets on which God had written the law/covenant that is so surprising.  Moses returned to find God's people "running wild" (Exodus 32:25) in  frenzied worship of an image they had cast in gold.  He was so angry, he threw the tablets to the ground where they shattered.  The Lord declared that a consequence of their waywardness will be that they will not enter the promised land but only their descendants.  And here is where the surprise happens.  The Lord instructs Moses to cut two new tablets and return to the mountaintop. The Lord "passed before" Moses and made the most amazing statement of self-disclosure (34:6-7), not only renewing the covenant but making it more sweeping.  Walter Brueggemann calls these two verses the "credo" of Israel. (Theology of the Old Testament, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, p. 216)  Now God declares God to be "merciful and gracious, slow to anger/and abounding in steadfast love/and faithfulness / keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation/forgiving iniquity/and transgression/and sin...."  This "credo" recurs at pivotal points in the narratives of the Book of Numbers, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, Jonah and the psalm appointed for Ash Wednesday, Psalm 103:8.  Even after our slacking or outright hostility, God takes the initiative to renew the covenant, to write on the stone tablets again.  This is the good news for Ash Wednesday.  The Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert, concludes his poem "The Sinner" with these lines, which might serve as our request, too: 

Yet Lord restore thine image, hear my call:
And though my hard heart scarce to thee can groan.
Remember that thou once didst write in stone.

"And to dust you shall return..."

When Martin Heidegger writes --"This certainty that 'I myself am in that I will die,' is the basic certainty of Dasein [Life] itself....." (History of the Concept of Time: Prolegomena, Theodore Kisiel, trans., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009, p.316)-- he is not wallowing in a sad or morbid obsession with death.  A full and realistic acceptance of the reality that one day I will no longer exist in this life is an important part of his logic that such a realization enhances, intensifies my engagement with life.  It is the reliable way for us to finally grasp the importance and urgency of the wonders of this life, especially in "caring" for others.  Likewise, when the church includes in her liturgy for the First Day of Lent-- "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."-- she is not calling for a forty day, self-inflicted scare tactic.  She is saying that coming-to-terms with our own mortality is the first step on a journey that leads to a personal awakening, a re-birth, a 'resurrection'!  For those who use the liturgical year as a spiritual discipline, the awakening, re-birth, 'resurrection'  reaches a climax at a moment of loud bells and bright lights on Easter Eve at the Great Vigil and continues into the next morning when the women disciples bring the first reports that the tomb is empty!  Life, new life has come out of dying!