Susan B. W Johnson is pastor of Hyde Park Union Church in Chicago.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 29, 1997, p. 95 copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The readings for Ash Wednesday leave us with conflicting admonitions: to put on sackcloth and ashes, and to wash our faces and comb our hair.
Last week my daughter came home from school with an assignment to write a poem for her Spanish class. "I need an oxymoron for ‘hope,"’ she announced. I sifted through my mental catalog of silly oxymorons: army intelligence, feminist humor, adolescent charm. We talked about her assignment and I lamely offered her the idea of an invisible bridge as one oxymoronic expression of hope. Later, as I read the first chapters of Joel and the sixth chapter of Matthew, I wanted to write a poem of my own. The oxymoron for hope would be the ashes of Palm Sunday.
It is oxymoronic at best for a Baptist to write about the observance of Ash Wednesday. I grew up in the Methodist Church, was ordained through the American Baptist Churches, and now serve a church that is affiliated with the American Baptists and the United Church of Christ. Perhaps I have a greater appreciation for the season of Lent than some of my low-church colleagues. I am intrigued by the imposition of a cycle of stories, the significance of color, the importance of ritual. But I am reticent about the appointment of sentiment by a liturgical calendar; I do not want anyone to tell me how to feel. I am reticent about the role of a priest applying ashes to a parishioner’s forehead. And reticent about wearing ashes at all. The combination of Joel 1 and Matthew 6 reinforces both this reticence and my attraction to the ashes of Palm Sunday as the darkest symbol of our firm hope.
As someone from the so-called low church, I’ve always thought that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount speaks to my reservations about overt gestures of ritual piety. Coupled with the desperate unfamiliarity I have felt whenever I attended Catholic, Anglican or even Lutheran worship, the roots of my reticence gradually imbedded themselves in scripture itself. Jesus warned us: "Beware of practicing your piety before other people in order to be seen by them"– an admonition that applied to all forms of publicized giving, all forms of public prayer, all forms of shared self-reproach.
Matthew’s Gospel reminded us that it was problematic to feel good about one’s goodness but even more problematic to feel pride in one’s ability to express remorse. Those of us who grew up in the tradition of Sunday or Wednesday evening testimonies suspected that even here this invisible line was crossed when our rapt attention unwittingly rewarded a speaker for a titillating conversion story. We knew that there were hidden and premature rewards in the public conduct of any private piety.
When I think about the public application of ashes, I have to stretch and strain against the powerful prescriptions to be private, prescriptions which are made more complex by the deepening middle-class commitments to privacy and to the supreme value of personal freedom. The prophet Joel is a compelling guide in such a Lenten exercise. He elicits from us a corporate confession of sin, asking us if we have ever had to confront ourselves because of the desolation of our community. "Has such a thing [as a plague of locusts wrought by God] happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors?"
He goes on to prescribe nothing less than a corporate ritual of anguish and repentance as the path toward hope in God at such a time. Nothing less than sackcloth and ashes, nothing less than fasting and prayer. Joel’s prophesy takes seriously the relationship between individual misconduct and the fiber of community. The leaders, the priests and the ministers must lament. The elders must be gathered, and then all the inhabitants of the land. I too believe there is a connection between the sinfulness of individuals and the erosion of whole communities. I too must acknowledge that whole communities and not only individuals need to express their remorse and hope.
I can only imagine what happens when the ashes of last year’s palm branches are streaked across one’s forehead in a corporate service of penitence and prayer. I imagine that for each person the service is a reminder of the preceding year’s palms, now turned to ash. Perhaps one is finally gripped by a humbling sense of what it means to be human — what it means to be limited by one’s own perceptions, what it means to be caught up in one’s own time frame and experiences, what it means to live with ambiguity and humility because our vantage point is not God’s. We have an awkward intelligence about the people who made Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem so triumphant. Days later they were the crowd who called for his execution, who jeered him, who watched him die. Yet it was for their sake that he came, and for our sake now. Perhaps when we embrace the ashes we confess that we too are the crowd who know not what we do. We confess that our awkward intelligence is really knowledge of ourselves.
The readings for Ash Wednesday leave us with conflicting admonitions: to put on sackcloth and ashes, and to wash our faces and comb our hair. They remind us how essential it is that entire communities repent with one voice, and how dangerous it is when individual voices forfeit repentance with public acts of immodest remorse. What I love most in Joel is his articulation of the promise which those who are penitent receive. Joel, who saw in an army of locusts a reflection of the judgment of God, also saw healing: "Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. . . I will return to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten."