Christian Unity on Ash Wednesday

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E. C. is a Presbyterian. I am not. I know that he’d love to make me so. He fits Presbyterianism. He loves the arc of the liturgy, the commitment to ever put God’s grace and covenantal faithfulness in the foreground, and their interpretive lens toward scripture. While I respect his convictions, I am not particularly drawn to the Presbyterian ethos. My friend Bruce is a Quaker. He loves the communal discernment of the Spirit and the diligent pursuit of acknowledging the image of God in every human. I’m not antagonistic toward either of those positions, but they aren’t enough to make me a Quaker. I’m something else. And yet, every winter we three pastors leave the comfort of our desired theological homes to share an Ash Wednesday service.

A Day for Humility

We can join together on Ash Wednesday because the day is about humility. When else in the Christian life do we acknowledge that we are but dust?

To have the ashes smeared on our foreheads is to embrace a grim truth about our limits: We are not God. From dust we were made—we all arrive here from the same humble beginnings. No one among us came from anything other than the earthly design of human birth. And to dust we shall return—we are mortal. What we have on this earth will end. After a good long life, perhaps, or maybe far too early. Regardless, death’s grim grip will overwhelm even the strongest will.

We each live subject to the human constraints of death, weakness, sin, shame, and pain. The ashes remind us that we are but fleeting flowers in a field, here today and gone tomorrow. The rest of the year we may be tempted to mask, hide, deny, or run away from our constraints. Perhaps, we think, we can undo our weakness. Or maybe we can live only out of our strengths, thus avoiding the need to display our weaknesses before others.

Or worse, perhaps we deny our constrictions by making them seem inconsequential compared to the apparent weakness of our neighbors. Maybe we think to ourselves, Well, they’re lazy because they’re on Medicaid. Whereas at least we work to earn our benefits. Perhaps we think their worldview is contemptible, while our own captures the whole of global complexity. Or maybe we think their theology is flawed or unrefined, while our own derives from the very mouth of God. But in each case, we see only through our limited perspective.

Ash Wednesday compels us to look all of this square in the face. It is a public rehearsal of Jesus’ parable:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)

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Source: Christianity Today