Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018

February 14, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Joel 2:1 – 2, 12 – 17 Psalm 51:1 – 17 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10 Matthew 6:1 – 6, 16 – 21 Isaiah 58:1 – 12

Discussion of the Texts: In cities across the globe countless persons will have possibly just celebrated what in the United States is sometimes known as “Fat Tuesday”:  whether we are referring to Carnival of Brazil, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Carnivale of Venice, and everywhere in between, yesterday was for many filled with occasions of reverie and celebration before the Lenten season marked by today, Ash Wednesday.  Though not a holy day of obligation, many from my own Roman Catholic tradition will today enter churches and chapels around the globe to receive ashes upon their foreheads or the tops of their heads, hearing from the priest, deacon, or even bishop either the words “Remember you are dust and will return to dust” or the words “Turn away from sin and live the gospel.”

Now, how fitting it is that, for the many who celebrated, the revelry of yesterday could so well remind us today of the words we read from the prophet Joel:  “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near” (Joel 2:1); and “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people” (2:15 – 16).  Recall that these are not the first words of the prophet which call the hearer and reader to acknowledge the impending darkness (see 2:2):  this first of two speeches from the Book is preceded by the prophet calling upon the elders and the people to hearken to his words as given by the LORD (1:1), crying out, “Wake up drunkards, and weep; and wail, all you wine-drinkers, over sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth” (1:5), and that “Alas for the day!  For the day of the Lord is near” (1:15; cf. 2:2).  We hear a similar cry from Isaiah:  “Shout out, do not hold back!  Lift up your voice like a trumpet!  Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1).  If we turn also to the passage from Second Corinthians, we are met in the first place with the same admonishment:  “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20b).

Each of these readings is for us — just as they were for the people listening to the prophets in the first place — a call to repentance; they are calls reminiscent of those from the mouths of so many prophets, and especially from the mouth of Jesus of Nazareth.  The Gospel, out of the gate, reading for today is quite explicit concerning sanctimony:  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father [sic] in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).  Read in the light of the closing verses of the previous chapter (i.e. Matthew 5:43 – 48), such false-piety — with “piety” understood as a kind of love — can be understood as a form of false love.  Indeed, true piety, the kind to which both Isaiah and Jesus call us, is the kind which loves silently-yet-actively, not demanding for ourselves any commendation beyond the knowledge that we have loved others.

Process Theology and the Texts: According to John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, the call to life is “the most basic call of God” (Process Theology:  An Introductory Exposition 1976, 143).  This may be construed as self-evident within the cosmos, from the largest galaxies all of the way down to the most humble Tardigrade, and all other occasions of experience within the “astonishing unity in creation” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution 1969, 32).  Life then is the subjective aim fundamental to the whole of reality, and it is to this that we are called by these texts to creatively participate.  This participation, however, is not merely for our own sake; rather, we are being called to foster spaces for such creativity in and for others.  Indeed, as Robert Mellert points out, process thought has a concern “not only for the unity of [humanity], but for the integration of all reality” (Robert B. Mellert, What is Process Theology? 1975, 115).

Too often we may be drawn into a cultural or societal maelstrom wherein we focus only on ourselves — which is not to say that self-focus is intrinsically bad.  A concern for ourselves is problematic when we perpetuate the myth of autonomous individuality which is so rampant within our time and communities.  When we fail to recognize or acknowledge interrelated nature of the cosmos, the creative intersubjectivity of all occasions, then our works and labor serve to, rather than to build the Reign of God and reality-itself, stymie the creative process of the cosmos.  This is the choice with which we are to contend:  do we continue to separate ourselves from others, human and non-human alike; or, do we rend our hearts (Joel 2:13) in order that “the many become one and are increased by one” (Mellert 1975, 59)?

Preaching the Texts: In light of current events within the United States, it would seem that the cries of repentance by the prophets and Jesus are evermore apropos, whether we consider growing inequality economically, socially, across sex, gender, and orientation, race, or any other sphere of life.  The words of Isaiah 58:6 – 10 are especially poignant and pointed, reminding us that we ought to consider how well we have fought for justice and freedom rather than inequality and oppression; whether we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, been open to others, or if we have shut ourselves off from all others, human and non-human alike, to their detriment and our own; whether we have sought to build-up the Reign of God, or if we have acted —knowingly or not — to tear it down by its foundations, the powerless and voiceless, “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40; cf. Luke 9:48).  Indeed, it is in the recognition of our relations with others, especially the most vulnerable, and in building the relations by fighting oppression through service to others (see Matt. 25:34 – 36) that we build the Reign of God.  What is more, we may come to realize that we are ourselves “the least of these,” in our own ways…none of us is better than anyone else, we all count equally to any other(s), and none of us can make it on our own.

Coming from my Catholic background, a possible sermon starter could be to ask the congregants why they are attending Mass (or the Liturgy of the Word, if the distribution of ashes is practiced outside of the Mass) or service (if it is not Catholic).  Are they attending because they believe that the Mass is only an obligation?  Do they wish to have others see the ashes upon their foreheads, to be lauded for their penitence?  Or are they entering the church or chapel (or other place of worship) with contrite heart to live and worship in community with others?  This is a question we may even ask of ourselves, those of us preparing to lead such celebrations of Ash Wednesday:  am I entering into this space with a contrite heart and a desire to be with-and-for others, or am I merely sanctimoniously seeking to direct others — am I no better than the Gospel writers’ portrayal of the Pharisees?  Have I fostered creative process and love within my immediate relationships and community, as well as reality-as-a-whole?

For such a sermon, careful review of today’s reading may well lead us to another question:  both Joel and Isaiah remind us that outward appearances (“rending clothing”) is not the desire of God.  So too with the Gospel reading, wherein Jesus admonishes the crowds to avoid vainglorious piety; yet, the author of Second Corinthians, from 6:4 to the end, strangely lauds their own endeavors for the sake of the Gospel.  Why?  The following verses (2 Cor. 6:11 – 13) seem to remedy the dilemma by suggesting that the previous self-commendations were to illustrate for the church at Corinth how they ought to “open wide [their] hearts also” (6:13).  Upon hearing these words, how can we not recall the words of Joel:  “rend your hearts” (Joel 2:13).  In the rending of our hearts we open our hearts, and we thus tear down the walls which we have built-up against God and the world.

Another possible sermon topic could again come from my Catholic background:  as a Catholic, not to mention being a former seminarian, I was brought-up to pray what is known as the Divine Office, which is the compendium of the official prayers required for clergy and religious within the Catholic tradition (among others); and, it happens that February 14 is celebrated within the Office and the Liturgy as the Memorial (or “Commemoration” during Lent) of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.  Central to the lives of these two men, a monk and a future bishop, was the proclamation of the Gospel, to the point that they even prepared texts in what would become known as the Cyrillic alphabet.  Just as we recall today the life of St. Valentine, a third century priest tortured and martyred for his stance against the emperor Claudius II regarding marrying young adults (an Imperial edict had been promulgated which forbade such marriages, on the grounds that unmarried men would make for better soldiers), we can ask of ourselves this:  to what ends will we go, and what are we willing to sacrifice for what we believe and what — or who — we love?  “For there is no greater love than this…” (cf. John 15:13).

A final point of departure for a sermon, and one which may appear to be the most obvious, would be the auspicious day upon which today’s celebration has fallen:  Valentine’s Day.  A day of importance for a more secular culture, albeit also for those of faith who are involved in relationships, we can enquire after how it ought to be celebrated.  Again, the secular culture will have been inundating us with ads to pursue the more materialistic side of demonstrating our love for others — chocolates, cruises, weekend get-aways, and much more.  Just as concern for self is not inherently bad, neither is the sharing and enjoyment of material goods.  But is there not a better way to show our love for others?  Considering the practice of giving-up something, be it a practice or a good (as a Catholic, we give-up meat on Fridays, and at a time would essentially partake of a vegan-esque diet on Fridays), we could ask “Why not do something more?”  Be it as simple as spending time working with youth, the infirmed, or the elderly, or even something as apparently mundane as volunteering to do more around one’s home, what better way is there to show our love for others than by recalling our call today:  to remember during these next forty days of Lent (and beyond) that we are to live-out lives service for others in justice and equality, openness and love, that we may then continue to build the Reign of God.

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a first year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.  Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy), in light of Whiteheadian process thought.