Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Year B Ash Wed 2018 A Paradox of Lines
Year B Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“A Paradox of Lines”
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. Matthew 6:1-6,16-21 Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. "So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
I grew up in a very Protestant part of Newport News, Virginia, and moved to the University of Richmond, which was still nominally a Baptist school for a few more years. I was introduced to Ash Wednesday by my college roommate, a good Catholic kid from Long Island.
I remember going with him to the mass, and as I waited in line to receive the imposition of ashes I felt for the first time in my life tied to the Church Universal; I had a sense of the weight of all those around the world honoring Christ through the imposition on this day. It was humbling, and beautiful, and overwhelming, and inspiring all at once.
My senior year, I remember that I had to go to Hechinger Hardware Store for some supplies for a project. Remember Hechinger’s? Several of us went in at their opening, and I think half of us needed a board cut by the staff person.
We were four deep, and the first person in line got their board cut, and said, “Oh by the way, you have a smudge on your forehead.” He thanked the man. And the second person came up, handed him the board and said the dimensions, and said, “He was not kidding, you have a smudge on your forehead.” He thanked her as he cut her board. The third person in line, trying also to be helpful, offered the employee a napkin to wipe his forehead, and politely, he thanked her and said he would take care of it later. I came up, and you could tell, he did not want to talk about his supposed “smudge” again. I looked at him, with some patient understanding and said, “It does not pay to be pious, does it?” Thankfully he laughed. None of these people knew that his smudge was the beginning of Lent for him. All the others were clueless about the outward sign of the inner devotion.
And that is the Paradox of this symbol. Pope Gregory began the tradition of sprinkling ashes on the penitent, and now we have the sign of the cross upon our brows. It seemingly goes against a few of the things in today’s Gospel from Jesus, and we do not have time to go into how this shift happened, but the original reading for the first day of Lent was the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, where one did everything “right” and was not found righteous by God, and one who did everything wrong and went home righteous because of his penitent heart.
Now in the Gospel reading, Jesus warns us of putting the focus on the outward while downplaying or even ignoring the inward. He says, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” He does not say Do Not. There are signs of inward devotional life, he is not saying Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe. Be wary is very different from Do Not.
But it is a Paradox, going back to the original meaning of the word...
Paradox:1530s, "statement contrary to common belief or expectation," from Middle French paradoxe (14c.) and directly from Latin paradoxum "paradox, statement seemingly absurd yet really true," from Greek paradoxon, noun "contrary to expectation, incredible," from para- "contrary to" (see para- (1)) + doxa "opinion," from dokein "to appear, seem, think". Meaning "statement that is seemingly self-contradictory yet not illogical or obviously untrue" is from 1560s.
We put on our ashes, not for others, but for ourselves. We do it to be reminded. The employee at Hechinger’s was constantly reminded that he was marked. He could not forget. People would not let him forget, to his chagrin. He could have easily wiped the “smudge” off, but it was a marking for him of what was happening inside. And so may it be for us all.
Because we are human, and let us also go back to the original meaning of that word...
Human (adj.): mid-15c., humain, humaigne, "human," from Old French humain, umain (adj.) "of or belonging to man" (12c.), from Latin humanus "of man, human," also "humane, philanthropic, kind, gentle, polite; learned, refined, civilized." This is in part from PIE *(dh)ghomon-, literally "earthling, earthly being," as opposed to the gods (from root *dhghem- "earth"), but there is no settled explanation of the sound changes involved. Compare Hebrew adam "man," from adamah "ground." Cognate with Old Lithuanian žmuo (accusative žmuni) "man, male person."
We are from the simple earth, human from humus, dirt, we are earth-lings made of earth. And that is why we say, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That does not negate that we are also “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Psalm 139:14
As I said on Sunday, the human miracle is that we are living, breathing, loving, dying stardust. And we take this season to remember that “we are put on earth but a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.” (William Blake, The Little Black Boy)
Tonight’s paradoxical lines mark you. They mark you as fully human. [Draw horizontal line] But they also mark you as in the image of the Divine. [Draw vertical line] They also trace even more important lines, the lines drawn on you in your baptism. The oil of Chrism marked you as Christ’s own forever. Simple things, lines. But tonight they are deep and powerful symbols of an inward grace. These echoes shape and form us. These echoes go throughout eternity, marking us as all too human, and entirely Christ’s as well. We are Christ’s tonight, tomorrow, and always. Amen.