Ash Wednesday

Last revised: March 7, 2019
Click Reload for most recent version

RCL: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isa. 58:1-12; 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Opening Reflections: Elements of a New Reformation

In 2019 there is finally serious conversation about addressing the foreboding challenges of Climate Change. The debate has begun over the “Green New Deal.”

A dozen years ago I had an idea for a “Green” Ash Wednesday that was partly an effort to make a faith response to the issues of eco-justice, but also as a shift in piety for the practice of ashes on the forehead for Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Traditionally, we hear this somber reminder of our mortality in the frame of an often shaming focus on sin. In light of Mimetic Theory, we know that our traditional focuses on sin are usually sinful. The Sin of our origins is an Us-vs-Them structuring around what we deem sinful, which then becomes the justification for sacred violence against them.

The crucial Girardian text on this insight is James Alison‘s The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. And the heart of that book is Alison’s masterful reading of John 9 — one of the best theological essays on any single scripture passage, in my opinion. (Note: his reading of John 9 is also expanded upon and stands alone as Chapter 1 in Faith Beyond Resentment.) Here’s a glimpse in this summary paragraph:

In this story then we watch a revolution in the understanding of sin, and a revolution that takes place around the person of Jesus, but is actually worked out in the life of someone else. The structure of the story is the same as is to be found time and time again in John: that of an expulsion, or proto-lynching, one of the many that lead up to the definitive expulsion of the crucifixion, which is also the definitive remedy for all human order based on expulsion. The revolution in the concept of sin consists in the following: at the beginning of the tale, sin was considered in terms of some sort of defect that excludes the one bearing the defect. At the end of the tale sin is considered as the act of exclusion: the real blindness is the blindness which is not only present in those who exclude, but actually grows and intensifies during the act of exclusion. (p. 121)

My “Green” Ash Wednesday seeks to hear — “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” — through Easter ears. Yes, our earthly bodies are mortal. But in the frame of the Easter promise we know that someday we will put on immortality with a resurrection body (1 Cor 15:35ff.). God is saving the whole creation from it subjectivity to decay (Rom. 8:18-25), when God’s power of life will become all-in-all (1 Cor 15:28). In this frame, remembering that we are dust can be more about our solidarity with the rest of creation. We are star dust. God’s redeeming of creation includes our bodies along with the rest of it.

And as children of God, we shoulder a special responsibility — a persisting divine invitation — to participate in God’s ongoing work to bring creation to fulfillment. The New Reformation is clear about the down-side of focusing on salvation as ‘going to heaven when you die,’ which so often leads to thinking that the earth is disposable because we leave it behind at death. No! We do not stand in the inheritance of Plato’s dualism of heavenly ideas over earthly substance. We stand in the inheritance of the robust creational monotheism of Jesus’ Judaism. We are dust and return to dust. But that dust was created good and will someday come to fulfilment. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3b-4). Life is the beginning and the ending, and we are called to live in the light.

So the texts I chose for “Green” Ash Wednesday are:

  • Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17 — The creation of the earth creature (adama) out of the earth, placing s/he in the garden to care for it (including the infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the symbol of our sinful focus on sin).
  • Romans 8:18-25 — Subjected to the futility of decay, the whole creation eagerly longs for the revealing of the children of God, groaning for the redemption of our bodies. We hope.
  • John 9:1-7 — Jesus heals a man born blind with dirt (reminiscent of Genesis 2), working God’s continuing work of creation and teaching the disciples about sin.

Here’s a narrative account of developing the idea of “Green” Ash Wednesday; and Sermon Notes for the 2019 sermon.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10


1. Sermons from a Girardian perspective by members of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby in 2016, “Taking the Etherial With You.”

Reflections and Questions

1. “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” In 2012 I opened a sermon titled “Adding Something for Lent” with reflections on facing our mortality with the Imposition of Ashes and concluded:

What about you? Can you take this experience of being confronted by our mortality today and turn it into a lenten discipline or two for growing in your discipleship? And not just for this season only. Because we may begin this season facing our mortality, but we finish it with a celebration of the power of life in Jesus Christ that began renewing the Creation two thousand years ago. Being his disciple means being constantly aware of how we might be renewed in our living. It’s not just about transformed lives when we leave these mortal, earthly bodies behind someday in exchange for our heavenly bodies. But it is about how these mortal, earthly lives might also be changed and renewed and given new life. As St. Paul emphasizes in our epistle tonight, the time of salvation is now! Today! Let us commit this Lent to add some good things in our lives for the better. It will probably mean subtracting some things, too, that seem a sacrifice. But we follow the one who sacrificed himself on the cross so that we might begin to experience newness of life, so that we might have our lives transformed for the better.

2. This passage ends with a significant string of paradoxes. This is a good sign that Paul was, in the parlance of contemporary spirituality, a mystic who practiced “contemplative spirituality.” When experiencing the oneness of God with creation and humanity, the mystic can hold together opposites as both being true simultaneously.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


1. Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus, uses Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount as a centerpiece by making it the most-oft cited passage in the book, including two chapters devoted to it — Ch. 14, “Kingdom Manifesto” and Ch. 15, “Kingdom Ethics,” with a good summary of the entire Sermon on pp. 135-36. In the longer commentary of Ch. 15, he begins with helpful comments on developing spiritual practices as akin to getting ready to run a marathon. And after reflecting on the theme of 6:19-24 on wealth, he ties the three spiritual practices of 6:1-18 to three themes of the Sermon on the Mount up to this point:

It’s fascinating to stop at this point in the sermon and catch our breath. What have been the key issues Jesus has addressed in his kingdom manifesto? To what themes has he returned? First, of course, is money — which is itself about values. From the seemingly absurd proposition that blessing is associated with poverty of spirit (or simple poverty in Luke’s version) to this binary option between serving God and wealth, Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom of God presents us with a radically different value system than we see in the world around us. Second, as we might expect, is sex. From saying, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” through his teaching about the power of lust in the heart, to his words about the unexpected negative consequences of even legal divorces, Jesus proposes a kingdom that is a matter of the heart, not the pelvis. And third, from his blessing of the meek and persecuted to his warnings about insult and anger, to his exposure of hypocritical external displays of piety, including his words about making oaths, Jesus is concerned about power — how we use violence, language, and even religion to dominate others and secure our own superior status.

The kingdom of God, then, is a revolutionary, counter-cultural movement — proclaiming a ceaseless rebellion against the tyrannical trinity of money, sex, and power. Its citizens resist the occupation of this invisible Caesar through three categories of spiritual practice. First, they practice a liberating generosity toward the poor to dethrone greed and topple the regime of money. Second, they practice a kind of prayer that is a defiant act of resistance against the prideful pursuit of power, pursuing forgiveness and reconciliation, not retaliation and revenge. Finally, they practice fasting to revolt against the dominating impulses of physical gratification — so that the sex drive and other physical appetites will not become our slave drivers. And all of these are practiced covertly, in secret, so they aren’t corrupted into an external show “as the hypocrites do.” (pp. 133-34)

2. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, Ch. 29, “Your Secret Life.” McLaren suggests using the Sermon on the Mount covering the five weeks in Lent; this portion falls in the third week. In 2015 our parish followed this suggestion; see Lent 3B.

3. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, pp. 397ff. In essay 9 on Prayer, Matthew 6 figures prominently. There is classic wisdom here on prayer as aligning oneself with God’s desire. So Alison begins with a brief review of Mimetic Theory 101, the contrasting views of desire:

I sometimes characterize the folk-psychology approach as the “blob and arrow” understanding of desire. In this approach, there is a blob located somewhere within each one of us and normally referred to as a “self.” This more or less bloated entity is pretty stable, and there come forth from it arrows which aim at objects. So “I” desire a car, a mate, a house, a holiday, some particular clothes and so on and so forth. The desire for the object comes from the “I” which originates it, and thus the desire is authentically and truly “mine.” If I desire the same thing as someone else this is either accidental and we must be rational about resolving any conflict which may arise, or it is a result of the other person imitating my desire, which is of course stronger and more authentic than their secondary and less worthy desire. Since my desiring self, my “I,” is basically rational, it follows that my desires are basically rational, and thus that I am unlike those people whom I observe to have a clearly pathological pattern of desire — constantly falling for an unsuitable type of potential mate and banging their head against the consequences, or hooked on substances or patterns of behaviour that do them no good. Those people are in some way sick, and their desires escape the possibilities of rational discourse. Unlike me and my desires. (pp. 398-99)

Which brings us to Girard’s different view of human desiring and its impact on prayer:

The understanding of desire which Girard has been putting forward for over half a century, and which is often referred to as “mimetic,” is about as far removed from this picture as you can get. The key phrase which I never tire of repeating is “We desire according to the desire of the other.” It is the social other, the social world which surrounds us, which moves us to desire, to want and to act. This doesn’t sound particularly challenging when it is illustrated in the way the entertainment industry creates celebrities, or the advertising profession manages to make particular objects or brands desirable. For few of us are so grandiose as to deny that some of our desires show us as being easily led and susceptible to suggestion. It becomes much more challenging when it is claimed that in fact it is not some of our desires that are being talked about, but the whole way in which we humans are structured by desire.

For what Girard is pointing out is that humans are those animals in which even basic biological instincts (which of course exist, and are not the same thing as desire) are run by the social other within which the instinct-bearing body is born. In fact, our capacity to receive and deal with our instincts is given to us through our being drawn towards the social other which inducts us into living as this sort of animal, by reproducing itself within us. And what makes this draw possible is the hugely developed capacity for imitation which sets our species apart from our nearest simian relatives.

Thus, to cut a long story short, recapping what we saw when we began this course: gesture, language and memory are not only things which “we” learn, as though there were an “I” that was doing the learning. Rather it is the case that, through this body being imitatively drawn into the life of the social other, gesture, language and memory form an “I” that is in fact one of the symptoms, one of the epiphenomena, of that social other. This “I” is much more highly malleable than it is comfortable to admit. And even more difficult: it is not the “I” that has desires, it is desire that forms and sustains the “I.” The “I” is something like a snapshot in time of the relationships which pre-exist it and one of whose symptoms it is. . . .

As you can imagine, prayer is going to look somewhat different if this is the sort of animal who is to be doing the praying. Because in this picture, prayer is going to start from the presupposition that we all desire according to the desire of the other. It is going to raise the question: Yes, but which other? We know there is a social other which gives us desire and moves us this way and that. But is there Another other, who is not part of the social other, and who has an entirely different pattern of desire into which it is seeking to induct us? That, as we have seen, is the great Hebrew question, the discovery of God who is not-one-of-the-gods, and our texts on prayer are part of our way into becoming part of the great Hebrew answer. (pp. 401-04)

Reflections of Matthew 6 continue for another ten pages (through p. 414), looks at several other New Testament passages on prayer for another ten pages, and then concludes the essay with a return to Matthew 6, especially the Lord’s Prayer (pp. 424-33).

Alison also offers a video homily for Ash Wednesday; in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). The secrecy and isolation which Jesus counsels in this passage is what we all have had to do during this pandemic! We have been limited in our usual sociality of receiving ourselves through the eyes of others. We’ve also witnessed during this time people giving themselves over to conspiracy theories which inspire them to sacred violence as a means of trying to feel alive. In the face of this, we are called by God once again during this season of Lent to a time of repentance. The God who loves us is offering us the way out of our self-destructive ways to peaceful lives of helping one another. During this season of grace, we are invited to come closer to the one who can lead us into repentance. We find one who occupied the place of shame, even though he was innocent, asking us to stay in this place with him for a while. It is a place where we don’t have to desperately try to cover up shame by constructing false selves to show others. We are allowed to feel the pain of shame in the embrace of someone who unconditionally loves us. This is the gift of practices of silent prayer in our secret places.

4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4), pp. 146-161. His chapter on Matthew 6 is titled “On the Hidden Nature of the Christian Life.”

5. Thomas Keating, Healing Our Violence Through the Journey of Centering Prayer (lectures with Richard Rohr), in his second lecture uses Matthew 6 as a wisdom saying from Jesus about Centering Prayer.

6. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, the last section of chapter 1, “Narcissism and Christian Discipleship,” pp. 56-58. He writes, for example:

Matthew 6:1-18 offers careful correctives in spiritual direction. The dangers of spiritual mimesis (where we imitate another person’s religious practice) lurk even in and around our worship. Jesus details three areas that can prove dangerous: giving, praying, and fasting or repenting. In each of these, examples are given of “bad” mimesis (imitation) and “good” mimesis. In no case is Jesus criticizing the faith of Judaism. In each case, the person critiqued expresses their faith in relation to others not to God.

In each case the action that is practiced is done for the purpose of soliciting a response from the collective. If the practice of faith is to elicit a positive response from people and the practice of faith achieves such responses, then as Jesus points out, the goal is reached, “they have their reward.” It is not that God will not be gracious to them; it is that they cannot receive what they cannot perceive.

Jesus is critiquing the practice therefore, of religion, not faith. Spirituality expressed in religious terms and forms will always be directed to the other rather than God. Jesus calls these figures “hypocrites.” We would note that “hypocrites” is the term applied to actors in the ancient world, particularly where masks were involved. “Hypocrites” is a term Jesus may have been familiar with from the practice of drama in neighboring Sepphoris and Capernaum.

The truly religious person, the actor, (“hypocrite”) is split between the person they know themselves to be and the person they present to others. This metaphoric split is an indication of the rupture of religion and its inability to really make us whole. I find that the distinction Swiss psychologist Carl Jung makes between the persona and the shadow is helpful here. Our persona is the way we wish to be perceived and our shadow is the side unknown to ourselves but often perceived by others. Those aspects we know of our own shadow, we do not wish others to know about, thus we put on “masks” in public, particularly when it comes to public participation in the divine drama of worship. (p. 56)

7. Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, see especially pp. 129ff. Rohr combines three perspectives that are immensely helpful to me: Catholic spirituality in the tradition of Thomas Merton, the Emerging Church, and Girardian anthropology (the only footnote in the entire book, p. 4, acknowledges his gratitude to the work of Girard and Gil Bailie).

8. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on the day in 2013, “Turning on Ash Wednesday“; in 2015, “Renouncing Self-Centered Renunciation“; in 2017, “Setting Our Hearts on God’s Treasure“; and in 2018, “A Sign of Our Mortality.”

9. Other good books for parish ministry on the Sermon on the Mount: Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount; Glen Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance. And specifically on Ash Wednesday: Walter Brueggemann, Remember You Are Dust.

Reflections and Questions

1. In 2014 we have the benefit of Ash Wednesday following a long Year A Epiphany season, so Matthew 6 falls right into the context of healthy doses of the Sermon on the Mount.

2. Why choose this passage for the day in which we practice the most public of rituals? Someday maybe I’ll attempt a sermon on that puzzle.

2. In 2013 I attempted taking on that puzzle of why this Gospel for the day and season we most emphasize outward practices such as ashes on the forehead and fasting on Fridays. I had someone ask me recently about fasting and found myself giving an answer informed by Mimetic Theory. This past year I’ve increasingly been coming to see the Gospel, in light of MT (and the idea of Paul’s anthropological typology in Romans 5), as the gracious promise of God redeeming our way of being human. If the former way of being human was marked by sacrifice, our new way of being human can be marked by self-sacrifice. If Jesus criticizes a sacrificial mode of fasting in Matthew 6:16-18, can the practice of fasting be seen to be redeemed by a self-sacrificial mode of fasting? (Similar questions can be asked of giving alms, Matt 6:2-4, and praying, Matt 6:5-15, with similar answers.)

Here’s a version of fasting in light of MT. Fasting often falls within the logic of sacrifice as a lesser violence substituted for a greater violence. We punish ourselves with an inadequate intake of food as a substitute for God’s punishment of our sins. Fasting is a means of satisfying God’s wrath at the injustice of our sins. It is a work of the law that Paul criticizes, and it is a divisive practice of the law that Jesus criticizes — dividing between those who satisfy God’s wrath and those who don’t, the righteous and unrighteous.

But Jesus comes to redeem our human religious practices from the logic of sacrifice to that of self-sacrifice. As such fasting is not done to satisfy God’s wrath but as a loving response to God’s love, which is a love that reaches out to those on the margins such as the hungry. Fasting, then, is not a practice to divide between righteous and unrighteous, something we do to make ourselves look better than others before God, but a spiritual discipline that brings us into solidarity with the hungry — and in solidarity with the God who’s in solidarity with those on the margins. A similar transformation can inform our alms-giving and praying.

The 2013 sermonFasting Redeemed” made use of a great illustration from the Raven Foundation on “The Evolution of Religion” to help capture the notion of solidarity with victims.

3. And putting ashes on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday? This may be experienced not just as solidarity with all people on the basis of our common immortality, though it certainly is that, but also as solidarity especially with those most in danger of perishing because of the human logic of sacrifice. As we begin the Lenten journey to the cross, we begin with a deepened awareness that the cross means solidarity with human victims — the white-robed martyrs of every time and place who have come through the great ordeal (Rev. 7).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email