Ashes and Dust

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
— Isaiah 58:5-7

I find myself writing this Ash Wednesday message from 13 time zones away from New Jersey, specifically as local time here in the Philippines just signaled the official end of Ash Wednesday and begun the official 40-day commemoration of the Christian Lenten Season. As I went about in the public places today it was easy to be reminded that I am in a predominantly Roman Catholic country, what with the vast number of people walking about with the traditional cross of ash marked on their foreheads. The ash liturgically symbolizes for the Christian the stark reminder of our mortality, the provisionality of our physical existence, our sinfulness, brokenness and our need for repentance. We are after all, as Jesus said, just “like grass” - here today and gone tomorrow. 

Yet in our present society public attention and popular culture are more attuned to the hedonistic revelries of “Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday.” Mardi Gras is the final day of festivities of the Carnival season and, as most of us already know, features parades, masquerades, and, unfortunately, an event often attended by abandoned drunkenness and shameless debauchery. The carnivals precede Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season - as if mocking the traditional emphasis on fasting that is ushered in by Ash Wednesday. The contrast is unmistakable - the emphasis of Lent on fasting and penance is preceded by a “binge of sinning.”

And so the words of the prophet Isaiah above echoes from thousands of years past to speak to us with the same relevance and immediacy of the now, God’s lament over the distortion of the discipline of fasting by fraudulent spirituality. There is a coherent logic that threads through the period of Lent. It requires us to enter the discipline of turning inwardly, to look into our mortality and brokenness, the fleeting nature of our existence, our being mere “grass”, “dust” and “ash”, that in reflecting on our inadequacy and the fleeting nature of our existence we may be moved into repentance and liberation from our false-self, which then moves us deeper into the transforming forgiveness of God. 

The prophet Isaiah reorients us to the true purpose of fasting: and that is to free us from the captivity of our covetousness. Covetousness is not only the inordinate desire for wealth and material possessions or for another’s possessions. Covetousness is also spiritual - the inordinate desire for power, pride and dominion over others. Thus we see everything that the prophet Isaiah prescribes as antithetical to all of the many faces of covetousness, the emptying of the self for the sake of others: loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, setting the oppressed go free, share the bread with the hungry, bring the homeless to your house, covering the naked, and not alienate ourselves from our neighbors. 

We are just ashes and dust, mortals and withering grass. Our lives are lived in its full authenticity only if it is lived in God and in the service of God’s future reign that is now here in our midst. 

May this season of Lent be, indeed, a fundamentally new and fundamentally better journey of communion with God so that we can set ourselves free from the “thongs of the yoke” and be better participants in the extravagant and generous work of God’s grace and mercy in the world.