Ash Wednesday :: On Learning to Speak

She came up to me after a service one Sunday night. Tears in her eyes, trembling, she was still holding the sacrament in her fingers–a bit of bread, soggy and quivering, right along with her hands.

“Can I ask you a question?” she said.

“Should you take this if you know that the odds are good that you’re going to go right back to the stuff you’re stuck in?”

There was so much brokenness and humility in her voice. “Contrition” is the old word for it. It was written all over her face.

“You’d better,” I said to her. “Receiving the Mercy is your and any of our best hope to climb out of whatever it is we’re captive to.”

The Mercy… that’s what today is all about.

The Church, I think, sometimes comes across to people as a morally arrogant institution. Such a view is not groundless, of course. We haven’t always done a great job at modeling humility.

But then there is this day, Ash Wednesday, when millions of the faithful around the world will take words like these on their lips:

We have not loved you with our whole heart…

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves…

We have been deaf to your call to serve…

We have grieved your Holy Spirit…

Publicly. Out loud. Before “the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth”, we will confess:

The pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives…

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways…

Our exploitation of other people…

We will plead forgiveness for:

Our blindness to human need and suffering…

Our indifference to injustice and cruelty…

For:

Uncharitable thoughts towards our neighbors…

And for our prejudice and contempt for those who differ from us…

And so it will go. We will lay it all out there. We’ll receive the ashes as a reminder of our mortality, and then we’ll turn heart and soul to the Mercy that meets us in Jesus.

At one point in his ministry, Jesus said:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:3-5).

The moral arrogance we are accused of, it would seem, is unfounded. Awareness, of course, is one thing. Following Jesus is sure to make us far more “morally aware” than we may have been otherwise.  But moral arrogance or superiority is another.

The Church, I think we may say, is a people unique for the moral awareness to make them realize that they can claim no moral superiority. For all the dynamics of hell that pollute God’s good world are present yet in the community of faith, which struggles still to tell the truth about herself… say nothing (yet) about the world.

And there will be space and time to tell the truth about the world. But rest assured that only a people capable of naming the evil “in here” can meaningfully and humbly and accurately speak of evil “out there.” George Lindbeck says that doctrine and liturgy teach us the “grammar” of faith. Learning to speak with lips quivering and hands trembling of our own moral “stuckness” will give us the skills to know when and where and how to speak of the world’s moral ineptitude. Worship disciplines our rhetoric, for the Word that is the substance of the Church’s worship lays bare our hearts.

So today we will come. Aware of our distance from the light, and of our complicity with death, we will come. We will come to have ashes smeared on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality and penitence. We will come to receive again the broken body and shed blood of the Lord who loves us. We will eat and drink the Mercy that liberates us from sin for a free and joyful service to all God’s creatures.

And maybe… just maybe… we’ll find our way into a “prophetic word” for the world.

But first, this:

Most merciful God, we confess…

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