The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Ash Wednesday—Year B; Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; II Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
There are some hard words in this liturgy. Words like “wretchedness,” “lamenting,” “hypocrites,” “broken,” “contrite,” “penitence,” “self-examination,” “repentance,” “mortal,” “dust,” “heart.”
Any one of these could set us back a ways, but all of them together could fall down upon us like a ton of bricks and knock us to the ground. Who of us can get out from under, let alone get back up from, that kind of weight? But maybe there is another way to look at this ritual that we do today, maybe there is another way to hear all these words that swirl around us. Let’s take it piece by piece and see what we can see.
There is an element of being crushed and broken by these words, but that is only because the armor around our hearts has grown so thick and so strong. That word that Jesus uses as he preaches in Matthew, “hypocrites” it means “pretender.” We are masterful “pretenders,” putting on mask after mask in our life, trying to meet expectations set by others, trying to attain way of being that is set by our culture, trying to knock back those whispers in our head that we have not been enough, accomplished enough, done enough, all the while moving farther and farther away from that whom God has made us to be. And in the dust up with those voices, we add layer upon layer around our heart.
And it is an arduous task to crack that shell, to examine our armor piece by piece, to intentionally take it off, to lay down our shields. But there comes a time in our lives when we realize that we can’t live with all this weight any more. It does not serve us, it does not serve God, and it does not serve our neighbor. Why does God want a broken heart? Because a broken heart is one that is tender, pliable. A broken heart is one that God can work with; a broken heart is one that can be healed; a broken heart is one that God can make new.
And all of these really hard to hear sort of archaic sounding words—“wretchedness,” “lamenting,” “contrite,” “penitence,”—they are just descriptors of what it feels like when you examine the gap between who and what you long to be and the reality of our lives. When I can touch that tragic gap between who I long to be as a parent, or spouse, or priest and all those times when my words are harsh and my actions are impatient and incomplete, when I can touch that tragic gap between my God-given and God-beloved humanity and the harsh, judgmental ways I talk to myself when it comes to my limits—well, “wretchedness,” “lamenting,” “contrite,” “penitence”—these words fit, because they all bear witness to the weight. I think of “wretchedness” as meaning “awful,” like you’re an “awful” person, but the word actually describes “the state of being deeply afflicted, feeling dejected, being distressed in your body or mind.” If you have ever touched the gap in the values to which you aspire and the values revealed by your actions, then you know what it means to feel wretched.
And when we touch that place, “lament” becomes the most natural expression in the world—when we touch that broken place, we need to go give voice to our grief and pain about those ways we have missed the mark.
“Contrite” is a word that speaks to that feeling of sorrow and regret that we feel when we fall short. “Penitent” is another word that gives voice to that pain and sorrow we feel when we have not loved with our whole heart.
So, all of these loaded words are like valves on a pressure cooker that let off the steam, the energy, that erupts when we are brave enough to look deep inside our lives and our souls and name those places and those ways where we have chosen armor and swords and shields instead of leading with an exposed, open, undefended heart. When we own how far we have moved away from that wholehearted place, it hurts. It hurts a lot. Today, and for the next forty days, we dare to examine the tragic gaps in our lives; we dare to name these gaps and grieve them—not in some sort of self-serving emotional guilt-and-shame fest, but in an effort, with God’s help, to lay aside our armor, and shields, and swords, and stand in the goodness and wholeness of our humanity.
Remember, “God hates nothing God has made;” “God has created us out of the dust of the earth;” “God knows whereof we are made;” “God knows we are but dust;” God knows we are human, mere mortals, with feet of clay. And when God created us with feet of clay, God proclaimed us “good.” Part of our reckoning with this day is the full embrace of the limits of our humanity and accepting that we are loved. Period. We armor up, put forward our shields, and draw our swords when we think that humanity is not enough.
There is one other piece that we have to mark on this day—and it has to do with our mortality. We receive these ashes as a sign of our mortality—as a sign of our capacity to die. There is the death we will one day die when we breathe our last and fall into the hands of the Living God, and there is the death that this liturgy calls us to today, and every day. To do the work of this Ash Wednesday and this season of Lent, we have to be willing to die; to die to our masks and all the ways we defend and guard our heart. The word “heart” is on that list of hard words because there is nothing harder than dropping down into our heart. We have to die to being in charge and in control. We have to die to our reluctance to be loved as fully and completely as God desires. We have to be willing to fall into the hands of the Living God today, and to know that in God’s hands, our heart is safe; in those hands, we finally, completely, and absolutely belong.
In the end, both in this liturgy and in our lives, there is “absolution,”—another big, heavy word, but it means “to set free from an obligation.” In the end, all of this, all of this, is to set us free from the weight and burden of all those ways that keep us from living and loving with our whole heart. That’s all God wants—all God wants is for us to be able to live and love with our whole heart. If this season of Lent can help us move more to that place, then come Easter, we will understand how dry bones can live again. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 18, 2015