“Lamenting our sins”, “acknowledging our wretchedness”, “contrite hearts”, “I have been wicked from my birth”, “turn from wickedness…and live”. These are just some of the phrases that are a part of The Episcopal Church’s liturgy for today, Ash Wednesday. These, and many others in today’s liturgy, don’t sit all that comfortably in my theological perspective. Heard in a certain way, they seem to point people toward feelings of shame and unworthiness — something that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have often been accused of nurturing in unhealthy ways. And, in my own explorations and reflections, I have concluded that God is not a God of shame (click here to see an earlier post on this topic).
But, this language also does serve a purpose — part of which is, indeed, to make us uncomfortable. I think that often, when we encounter a day like Ash Wednesday that offers us this kind of tough language, we are not encountering language that is meant to shame us but, rather, language that is meant to wake us up, to get through our hardened exteriors in order to get our attention. The language of Ash Wednesday is meant to do just this, I think: to wake us up, to get our attention, and to shift our focus.
This year, Ash Wednesday comes in the midst of a cultural period in which we Americans are hearing a lot of triumphalist language. We are being called to be “great again”, we are being called to put ourselves first, we are being offered a vision of our lives in which Americans are the ultimate “in” people, and everyone else is “out.” Including Americans who don’t measure up to the triumphalist image. Americans have long had a lingering superiority issue, and it has been brought to the forefront in a big way.
But this is also a manifestation of something that is not uncommon among human beings. We are quick to put each other into categories, we are swift to make judgements, and very often, rather than dealing with the person who is actually in front of us, we end up dealing with the image of what we have judged that person to be. Many people have superiority issues — they want to be seen as better than others in some way. Some people have the opposite problem: they constantly see themselves as worse than everyone else. Life is conceived of as a great competition in which there are always winners and losers.
The language of Ash Wednesday seeks to break all of this apart by reminding us that, in the end, we are each and all just human beings, trying to make our way in the world, and that each of us faces limits — the ultimate limit being, of course, our lifespan on this earth. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words, given as ashes are ‘imposed’ upon the forehead, are the central words around which Ash Wednesday, and the whole Lenten season it inaugurates, turn. They are words that are meant to equalize: regardless of how better or worse than others we think we are, in the end, we are all the same: we are all human, we are all given the same regard by God, and we are each just trying to do the best we can.
There is a great freedom in realizing this truth. There is a great freedom and relief in having a space opened before us in which we are no longer competing, no longer measuring ourselves against others. It is the space into which God always invites us, the space of belovedness. That unconditional belovedness of God that makes it safe to be who we are. And whether the world regards us as successes or failures becomes irrelevant.
Sometimes it takes tough language to make us realize this. Ash Wednesday offers us both that challenge and that opportunity.