Wednesday, March 9, 2011

God Breaks Up with Us on Ash Wednesday (Isaiah 58:1-12)

Ash Wednesday has a particular set of Scripture readings that vary only slightly from one year to the next. Many of those traditional Ash Wednesday readings call us to repentance and announce the beginning of a fast, a time of drawing close to God through prayer and discipline. Among this year's texts:

Even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. (Joel 2:12)

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation. (Psalm 51:10, 12)

When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret ... and when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. (Matthew 6:6, 17)


You can hear how there is an attention to personal spirituality and individual relationship with God in these typical Ash Wednesday texts. And we're used to approaching Ash Wednesday as individuals, focused on finding that one-on-one connection to the Holy.

In surprising contrast, the reading from Isaiah 58 almost scorns the rituals of penitence and the tradition of personal spiritual navel-gazing. Whereas Ash Wednesday is usually our night for bowed heads and renewed dedication to spiritual growth and humble prayers to God, Isaiah 58 challenges our Ash Wednesday tradition and instead incites us to abandon our fasts and our prayers and to set down the ashes & the oil ... and to go out to feed the hungry, and to challenge the chains of injustice, and to provide shelter for wanderers, and to repair relationships with loved ones. Imagine, if we were to heed God's instructions here in Isaiah, what a very different Ash Wednesday tradition we would have!

But the people in Isaiah, and all of us, who are accustomed to approaching God through fasting and praying and worshiping and confessing and bowing down, struggle with this dismissal of our sacred traditions (58:3). We want to ask, "What's wrong? Why are you rejecting our rituals, God? How come our traditions aren't good enough for you? Why haven't you come close to us during our fasts and listened to our prayers and noticed how deep our faith in you is?"

And God, like a classic break-up speech, replies: "It's not you .... it's me."

There's an upset pulled on us in Isaiah 58 as God challenges our focus on rituals and prayers, and it plays out like a break-up speech. God says, "I've changed my mind about what I want and what I need in this relationship. You wooed me with your beautiful worship, and I loved how you loved me .... but then I saw that while you were loving me, you were abusing your workers and you were dismissive of your family members who came to you in need. And the more I saw this, the uglier your worship looked to me."

"I soaked it up when you sang psalms of praise, until I listened closely to the words and I realized that you were singing thanks only for the blessings in your own life. And when I heard the good and heart-felt words of your prayers, I also saw you kneeling in prayer next to someone without a coat, and as you prayed to me with your head bowed, you never even noticed your neighbor's need."

"While you were fasting through prayer, my heart was warmed to know that you were thinking about me so strongly and that you were striving to be intimate and close to me. But now I have opened my eyes to see that the food you were avoiding during your fast has gone to waste; you haven't even fed the widow or the orphan. And now I see that your desire to be intimate with me has excluded those around you, so I'm breaking up with you. I've changed what I want in this relationship."

"It's not you .... it's me. I've changed my mind. How beautifully you pray is not what makes this relationship. How well you fast, how strongly you love me is not enough. It's not about you loving me .... in fact, it's not about you at all!"

In a complete reversal of our Ash Wednesday and Lenten traditions of individual contemplation and personal penitence, God through Isaiah reminds us that even today -- this holy day of setting our spirits for Lent -- even today, it's not about us. Even on Ash Wednesday as we approach God seeking a moment of connection, our spirits are not called to faith-based self-focus, but to the humble remembrance that God isn't only in a relationship with you or with me: God has God's sights set on all people and on all of creation. God has a passionate love for justice to those who are the least of these, and an all-consuming grace for the healing of the oceans & forests and the ceasing of wars and the relief from the strains that pull us apart from one another.

Even on Ash Wednesday, it's not about you .... it's not about me .... it's not about preparing to spend the season of Lent calling out "Watch me now, God!" or "Love me best, God!" or trying to soak up all the Spirit and spirituality for ourselves. With the wisdom from Isaiah, it's about turning our ritualized navel-gazing outward to see the whole community; it's about looking up and recognizing a whole world of every living thing; it's seeing beyond ourselves and finding ourselves to be just one blade of grass in a field full of grasses -- beautifully, wonderfully made, but not alone.

I don't believe that God leaves us in this break-up like a departing lover jilting another lover. But maybe, maybe, God does step back from us (just a step!) and challenges us to seek the Holy and to seek our healing and to find our reassurance not so much in the ashes or in the palms or in the cross or in the empty tomb, but in the person next to us, and in the person in need, and in the struggles for justice, and in the dirt & ashes of life.

Which makes Ash Wednesday perhaps the hardest day of Lent, because we've come longing for connection with God .... and God points us elsewhere. Deflects our affection, even, in order to point us beyond the one-on-one spiritual relationship and beyond the rituals of church, in order to call us to draw closer to humanity. Call us to take these dusty ashes as a reminder to live gently with one another; call us to be springs of refreshment for one another; call us to light up a corner of the world as we can...

...and to do so as long as we are graced with breath and with life.

1 comment:

Laurie said...

Well done. A new perspective for me. Thanks.