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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…?” Isaiah 58: 6-7a
Ash Wednesday: that day when we not only gather in worship and preparation, but allow a dark, oily mark onto our foreheads. The day when we mark ourselves – visibly, outside of the church walls – as Christians. The day when we feel the eyes of the world upon us as we stake our claim to discipleship, when the words of Isaiah rest heavily, uncomfortably upon our hearts and we rush home to wash the ash away, grateful that our service was in the evening, and we don’t really have to be out in public like… this… afterwards.
And it’s easy to explain our discomfort – in this lectionary cycle as we read through Mark’s gospel, and hear the repeated injunction to silence in the face of Jesus’ miracles. As we read Isaiah’s scornful treatment of those who wear their piety on their sleeve, who wear proudly the symbols of their faith, expecting praise for their devotions. We are uncomfortable with those symbols. We pray quietly, within our services of worship; we go out into the world in loving service without constantly talking about God and Jesus… we get on with our discipleship, without fuss or fanfare. We feel no need to mark ourselves, to show forth to the world the leanings of our hearts, our commitments, our covenants.
How many of you are wearing a cross right now? As necklace, or earring, or on clothing, or as a tattoo?
How many are wearing engagement or wedding rings?
How many of us have at least one brand label showing somewhere – from the logos on purses or coat buttons to the swoop on our sneakers?
How many of us thought about what we were going to wear today – the impression that our clothes would make on people? How many of us put some energy into figuring out how we were going to present ourselves to the world today?
And a symbol of our faith makes us uncomfortable?
The thing about this smudge is that it makes all the wrong impressions. At worst, it does just what Isaiah condemns – gives us status as pious Jesus freaks who talk the talk without walking the walk. But I suspect that’s not what makes us uncomfortable, we who tend to be regular enough in our church participation that we’ll even attend a special Wednesday night service.
The symbols we wore in here tonight – the ones we put on without much thought, perhaps; the ones we’ve worn today without discomfort – mark our place in this world. They speak the language of our culture, showing our status, our privilege in this society; showing who we are and what we do within the current American context. They provide for us a common language about our cultural values – a way of affirming our way of life, of agreeing that brand names matter, and nice clothes matter. That outward appearances matter, that how we accessorize – with iPhones or androids, with long or short hair, piercings or tattoos or jewelry – says something about who we are, and how we live. That all these things say something good about us – something we want people to see, something we think will earn us some sort of credit or status in our culture.
And this little smudge ruins all of that.
This little smudge – just a bit of palm ash and olive oil – upends everything we were saying with our wardrobe choices today. Because this little black smudge reminds us that all of the power, privilege, status and prestige that this world can confer upon us does not change our mortality. A little bit of ash reminds us that all of the gadgets, all of the clothing, all of the jewelry, all of the many other ways we mark ourselves for public consumption cannot change that beneath all the symbols, were are merely flesh and blood. A little bit of ash reminds us that we aren’t really all that different, one from another.
Try as we might to hold on to the power, the privilege that this culture confers, we are each of us powerless when it comes to the essentials. All the fine clothes in the world aren’t going to help us if we are starving. There is no iPhone awesome enough to keep us warm outside on a night like tonight. No symbol of our status, no mark of our privilege will keep us from this simple truth: that we are dust. That we are all the same dust, no matter our weight, our gender, our income, our race.
No wonder we want to wash this mark away as fast as possible.
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to share your bread with the hungry, to invite the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Is not this the mark we wear, in humility, remembering that the kin from whom we hide ourselves are, in fact, the poor we condemn for their poverty, the mentally ill whom we lock away, the immigrant whom we fear and reject? Is not this the fast that we are called to: the fast from any notion that our status symbols mean anything? the fast from the defensiveness of privilege, the fast from all of our excuses for not treating one another as a neighbor, as an integral part of God’s creation, as a beloved and worthy child of God? The fast from worrying more about how we are perceived than about whether the body of Christ in this very community have had enough nourishment, have adequate shelter from cold and snow, have the healthcare – both physical and mental – that so many of us take for granted?
May the smudge we bear this day be a symbol, not of our piety, but of our accountability. May the covenant we renew in bread and cup bind us once more into one Body – one that doesn’t wear the symbols of our culture, but which we share with all who came from dust, all who shall return to it. May the marks we receive this night call us back to God’s fasts, of sabbath, and equality, and loving relationship.
And may we not be so quick to be rid of them. Even when they are gone from our skin, may they remain in our hearts, guiding us towards the promised resurrection.