Why Ash Wednesday?

Imposing ashes is one of the distinctive attributes of Western Christianity. It is the beginning of Lent – the Great Fast of Spring. Lent begins on Wednesday a traditional day of fasting for weekly practice. Friday is the other traditional fast day. Carnivale and Mardi Gras are celebrations before the fast begins. They are celebrations of being alive. Shrove Tuesday – the English version of Mardi Gras – is much more subdued. It is a time for giving thanks for being alive.

My first participation in the ritual of Ash Wednesday was while I was in seminary. I was working as a hospital chaplain near Atlanta. It was part of our practicum or “field education.” A few Roman Catholic lay ministers brought ashes to the hospital and went to every patient’s room asking if they would like to receive the ashes to begin the fast. I thought it was nice. But, I saw very little reason for it. I also note that it was Ash Wednesday 2001.

The next Ash Wednesday was much more significant. The Ash Wednesday 2002 took place six months after the coordinated terrorist attacks that now are simply called 9/11. I was in my second year of seminary. I went to chapel for the worship. The message the visiting Lutheran minister gave us was oriented to the aftermath of the attacks. Dust was his topic. We remembered the images of the people running away from the cloud of dust, people being covered with the dust, and the absolute fear of death everyone felt. The words used in imposition, “You are merely dust and to dust you shall return,” were sobering. Yes, the second time was much more meaningful. Years later, after several Ash Wednesdays have passed, I am forced to ask what does it continue to mean?

The doctrine known as substitutionary atonement presents a theological stumbling block for many people. One person confided to me, “I can sooner believe the Resurrection occurred than believe Jesus died for my sins.” Why? It’s very simple. Punishing the innocent for the crimes of the guilty is unjust. No, it does not matter the Christ was raised three days later. Murdering him for the sin of everyone in the world including those who murdered him is an injustice. It would not alleviate any “original sin.” In fact, it only makes it and the associated feelings of guilt worse.

The questions remain. What is the significance of the death of Jesus? What is the “propitiation” which St. Paul discusses in Romans 3:25? John gives a curious understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death. Christ lays down his own life. It is not taken from him. Why? He does it for divine love of the world. When St. Paul discusses what happened with Christ’s death he includes the Resurrection. We are reconciled to God by Jesus’ obedience, righteousness, and life. The “sacrifice of atonement” or “the propitiation” as the King James version puts it is actually the place of atonement. Jesus is the Temple. Sin is remembered at the Temple. And reconciliation is made at the Temple. The Temple is where God dwells. But God is greater than the Temple. Prayers are made facing in the direction of the Temple. Why does the Temple exist? Does it exist for God? No, it exists for the people.

Now we are ready to answer the question of why Ash Wednesday. If “Jesus paid it all,” Ash Wednesday is an unnecessary fast. In fact, all fasting would be unnecessary if the sacrifice was punishment that satisfied divine law or honor. Fasting is necessary if we are continually seeking to find the experience of God.

I visited a church one time where I heard the pastor describe God in this way. “Until God sees the blood, either yours or Jesus’, you will not be forgiven.” I told a friend who was a member of that church that I really despised the idea of a bloodthirsty God. Another time I was appalled when I heard that before the end of time the Jerusalem Temple and the sacrifices would be restored. It was still the bloodthirsty God I had heard about before. When a member of a congregation I served made such a claim I told her that such an action being supported by Christians was Anti-Christ. Even if Christ was the substitute why would we support something extra?

Fasting is not meant to satisfy God with suffering. It is meant to remind human beings that we are weak, self-righteous, and in fear of death. For all the bravado and swagger we demonstrate, we are cowardly covering up these characteristics for which we cannot be proud.

Jesus cautions against swearing oaths on glorious stuff. “You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? And you say ‘whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by it and everything on it, and whoever swears by the sanctuary swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.'” (Matthew 23:17-21 NRSV)

There is another caution about the attitude of prayer this time from Luke. “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9) The parable is about two men who go to the temple. One man prays thanking God for making him so great, pious, and better than many others including the other man who is praying. The second man asks for God’s mercy. Jesus says the second man is justified by God.

Jesus told us to fast because of the beatitude characteristics we could learn and re-learn. Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Advent are times for every spiritual good we wish we otherwise had time to receive. Fasting is not about punishing ourselves, trying to feel guilty, or even self-loathing. The Lenten fast is about remembering the life work of Jesus was bringing about and teaching life in reconciliation with the divine that is within us and surrounds us.

May all of us look forward to the celebration of Easter, Pascha, or the Resurrection and be ready for it.

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The World of Cleverly Devised Myths

Transfiguration Sunday has passed. St. Peter reminds us that the world is becoming new. The experience of the Apostles was real. Jesus was giving his disciples a preview of the glory of the Resurrection and the life it would bring. 

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.” (2 Peter 1:16-18 NRSV)

To say Peter was impressed would be an understatement. Matthew 17:1-9 gives an account of the story where Peter is amazed to see Christ glorified and in Christ’s glory he sees the great Prophets Moses and Elijah. We know the story. Peter wishes to build three shrines. He does not realize that he sees Moses and Elijah (both of whom in traditional teaching had been assumed into Heaven) are present in the glory of Christ and not their own. Peter is corrected on this matter by the voice from God the Father. This second letter attributed to him shows the lesson has been learned. There is no “Oh, and Moses and Elijah were there too” statement. 

The point made in this letter is that it was not a cleverly devised tale. It is not Odysseus building a wooden horse to fool the Trojans. There is no tale of Aeneas escaping Troy to eventually settle near Rome. Nor is there even a rumor that when Caesar Augustus died his spirit ascended to the Heavens. These stories and many like them made a world of heroes and servant/admirers. They made heroes out of weak people and nations. They hearkened to the glorious past. And they legitimized present day (St. Peter’s time) evils done by the rulers who were regarded as heroes. 

Peter says this is very different. He is not creating a new myth. He is giving a good news greater than that evangel previously given by Augustus bringing the Peace of Rome to the benighted world. It is greater and will bring more changes to the Mediterranean world than anyone can imagine. More changes than Peter himself could have thought possible.

Peter saw in Christ the reign of God. He saw the Resurrection and the restoration of all things. He saw Moses in the Promised Land. Peter and his fellow disciples witnessed greatness to come. He saw divine promises kept. And he knew the important action he needed to take was to listen, really listen, to the Son the Beloved to know what being pleasing to God meant. 

A Strange Day for Remembering

I opened my copy of Common Prayer this morning. The heading for this date concerns the Supreme Court decision in 1973 Roe v. Wade that ended restrictions on abortion up to the time when the fetus can survive outside of the mother. Honestly, if it had not been for that reminder I would have not even thought about the issue. My faith-practice does not revolve around the issue. I believe that with the exception of people who see abortion as the paramount issue of the time most Christians rarely if ever think about it. I certainly do not mean that abortion is condoned by the majority of Christians. I have no statistical information to point me to any such conclusion.

I find that there is little real information on the issue of abortion. A lot of opinion pieces are published. But opinions are not information. I know this is a shock to many people. All anyone must do is ask, “what information about Christian teaching on this subject do we possess?”

The Bible never mentions abortion. There are inferences taken from the Scriptures to oppose it. These are Psalm 139:13-18, Jeremiah 1:5, and Luke 1:41-45. The passage from the Gospel of Luke is the most interesting of the three. The action involved in the narrative is that the fetus-to-be-named-John moves when Mary greets Elizabeth who is carrying the fetus. Elizabeth is then “filled by the Holy Spirit” and declares the blessed state for Mary and “the fruit of her womb.” Elizabeth then says, “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” (NRSV translation) The word in Greek Brephos is often translated as infant or baby and can be used to indicate childhood. Before we get too far here, we should consider the angel’s words to Mary in verse 36 “and this is the sixth month for her who (Elizabeth) was considered to be barren.” Elizabeth is at the end of her second trimester when Mary arrives. We are told that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then left her. Perhaps, Mary was present when John was born and named. The text does not say. What conclusions can we draw from the text. The baby Elizabeth carried leaped for joy when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting. The child is dependent on the mother. Some people infer that John recognized Jesus before either of them was born. This conclusion is only tangentially supported by the text itself. Elizabeth’s child is responding to Mary. It is difficult to base an ethical teaching on this text.

The poetic statements of both Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1 are statements about the power and knowledge of God. Inferences made from those texts cannot be a basis for a teaching not even the omniscience or omnipotence of God. The simple fact that there are inferences being drawn here is problematic. We often make bad judgments and misread situations because of mistaken inferences. To claim “because the Bible makes no statement regarding abortion it is then permissible” is also problematic. It is the logical fallacy of making an argument from silence. I was raised in a denomination where “necessary inferences” were used to oppose using musical instruments in worship. Inferences along with arguments from silence make for bad logic.

The ancient Christian text The Teaching of the Twelve Apostle commonly referred to as Didache contains these words. “Do not abort a fetus or kill a child that is born.” (2:2) I once argued that this text demonstrates the Christian Church always opposed abortion. It is appropriately regarded as part of the Christian Tradition dating back to the beginning of the second century A.D. Catholic teaching maintains opposition to abortion. The question that should be asked is why are the two equated? The logical explanation, to me anyway, is the culture of the time allowed the head of the household to order the abortion or exposure of a child. Roman patriarchal society allowed the pater familias to order a daughter or daughter-in-law to abort a fetus or the death of a child that was “unacceptable” for any reason. Unfortunately, there is no reason given by the text as to why the teaching is there.

Roman Catholic teaching on this subject is well known. Protestant denominations have differing positions. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church (paragraph 161.K) concludes with this paragraph. “Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.”

The guidance provided by the Social Principles is very important. A young woman who has an abortion is stigmatized in the churches and in the communities in which they live. Abortions are kept secret by most people. The stigma creates a barrier between the patient and the pastoral care any other patient would receive from the church. It should not be the case that a person feels unable to confide in a pastor or trusted Christian friend. A clergy friend told me about one time while in a retreat he let it be known that he would provide pastoral care and confidentiality for anyone who has been involved with the decision to abort. He said this to a group of men. He told me that he has had people drive hours to come talk to him.

My friend should not be the only one who does this. I too am willing to provide a safe, non-judgmental space for a person who needs to unload or simply discuss their feelings before or after seeking an abortion.