By Bishop Ann Svennungsen
“The mark of ashes is one of the few honest words in a culture of illusion.” So began an Ash Wednesday sermon I preached in the early 1990s. Perhaps, the words are even more pertinent today.
We hear about fact checking, truth-o-meters, fake news. Well, this week we enter a season of deep truth-telling – a season that begins with ashes on our brows.
Perhaps, in a culture of illusion, we might turn to the Biblical prophets to guide us. Like the others, the prophet Isaiah minces few words in naming what he sees. Though God had tenderly cared for the people of Judah, they had not born the fruits of faithfulness and justice. Orphans were forgotten.
Widows neglected. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. To satisfy their greed and anesthetize themselves from the cries of poor people, the well-off spent their time at drunken feasts; they spent their money on clothes, perfumes, and trinkets.
“We were created from the dust of the earth; we will return to the dust of the earth; and we live with the dust of sin on our hands.”
But those efforts weren’t strong enough to block out Isaiah’s message. “Instead of perfume, there will be a stench; instead of beautiful hair, baldness; instead of rich robes, a binding of sackcloth. … You who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, surely your houses will be desolate, large and beautiful houses without inhabitants.”
Because of its sin, Judah would be cut down like a mighty oak. The people’s only hope is this tiny branch, this shoot from the stump of Jesse. It is from that dead stump that flowers one of the most beautiful pictures of justice in all of scripture. The Messiah, the one who comes as a descendant of Jesse, will reign with righteousness, not judging by soundbites or hearsay, but by equity and truth. The forgotten who have no advocate will have no need for one, for the Messiah will come to their defense, establishing a justice never before experienced.
PERHAPS, IN THIS SEASON OF Lent, in these days when we wonder “what is true,” we might consider reading the Biblical prophets as a Lenten discipline.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. The sooty cross which will soon cling to our skin reminds us of at least truths: we were created from the dust of the earth; we will return to the dust of the earth; and we live with the dust of sin on our hands. We live dependent upon God – for life, for forgiveness, and for life beyond death.
“The mark of ashes is one of the few honest words in a culture of illusion.”
And, then as we journey through Lent, a season of repentance, we open our eyes to see our sin: our petty thoughts, our complicity with sinful structures, our attempts to anesthetize ourselves from the world’s pain, our failure to believe God has gifted us to make a difference.
It is in God’s grace – and because of God’s faithfulness – that we can courageously examine our lives. Confident that God’s promise is not fake news, we can courageously work for the shalom God seeks for all.