Time of Reflection Marked with Ash

As I am not sharing the message at our Ash Wednesday Service, held jointly with Northminster Presbyterian Church, I'm reposting the Faith in the Public Square column I wrote in 2006 for the Lompoc Record on the meaning of Ash Wednesday. As I read it again, it still seems pertinent. :


Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
February 26, 2006

Time of Reflection Marked with Ash

Mardi Gras gets bigger press than the day that follows. It's not surprising. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a 40-day Christian observance of fasting and penance in preparation for Easter. Penance and fasting don't sound as exciting as Mardi Gras parties and parades, but these acts of piety help us take an inward and backwards glance at our lives, allowing us the opportunity to take responsibility for our mistakes and misdeeds, while calling us to live differently in the future. Before forgiveness can happen, the deeds must be remembered, acknowledged, and dealt with. We would rather let bygones be bygones, but first we must take care of the past, lest we fall victim to arrogance and folly.

Sin isn't just the act of the individual; it can just as easily be corporate and systemic. The actions and choices of societies and nations can have a lasting impact on history. People ask: why should I take responsibility for things I didn't do? I didn't enslave anyone nor did I imprison Japanese-Americans, force the Cherokee to take the Trail of Tears, massacre Vietnamese women and children at My Lai, or abuse prisoners at Abu Graib. My lack of participation doesn't mean that I'm immune from their consequences to our nation's soul. To ignore or forget them is to deny their place in the collective conscience of our nation. There is an American myth of innocence that often keeps us from accepting responsibility for our nation's actions, a myth that causes us to be blind to our own propensity to self-interest, hypocrisy, and destructive actions (torture in the name of security?). So, just as the Germans must never forget the Holocaust, we must never forget our own nation's dark secrets. Why? If we refuse to learn the lessons of the past, we are destined to repeat them.
Christians spend 40 days in prayer and fasting preparing for Easter because we cannot taste the joys of Christ's victory over death until we first share in his earthly sufferings and horrific death. Lent reminds us that Jesus battled temptation and experienced the terror of a Roman cross. It also raises the difficult question of what Jesus would do if he were walking the streets of modern America.

This is a season marked by prayer and acts of sacrifice, like forgoing something enjoyable and delicious as a reminder that we are not self-sufficient. I admit to a lack of consistency in my Lenten observances, but the point is well taken. To give up something I enjoy, is to take the focus off me and place it where it belongs, on God and the needs of my neighbor.

We live in a land of abundance, a land seemingly “flowing with milk and honey.” This reality has drawn generations of immigrants from across the globe to these shores in search of new opportunities. But, today American society seems beholden to a cult of narcissism. We cry out: America first, California first, Lompoc first, my neighborhood first, my family first, and finally, and most importantly, me first! Ash Wednesday is an enigma to a society that values appearances above all else. And so, on Ash Wednesday this ideology is challenged as we allow our faces to be disfigured by soot and hear calls to grieve our misdeeds, poor choices, and self-centeredness.

Lent begins in ashes and ends in death. Beginning with a burial rite it concludes in a tomb. Sack cloth and ashes, these are the mourner's possessions. As we disfigure our faces in repentance for our contributions to the inequality, hatred, and violence that mark life in this world, we are reminded of other acts of history marked by ash, from the Nazi crematoriums to the falling ash from the Twin Towers, from burning crosses to burning churches.

Whether we are Christian or not (most religious traditions have something akin to the Lenten season), perhaps we can use these next 40 days to ponder our own contributions to the incivility and disillusionment of our day. As we do this, we can also choose to take a different life course, one that puts the other before one's own self. This is what Jesus did! The season of penance won't last forever, for soon enough the ash will give way to joyous celebration. But, first things first!


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