Though not always, today I am happily religious. It is Ash Wednesday and I have carried about the ashes on my forehead all day. I saw others marked similarly on the L train and in the Washington library. The public act means that catholics have left behind the ordinary times and entered the Lenten season, a perverse and ghoulish time for some when self-denying stoicism rears its ugly head. It is not my intention here to pretend the opposite.
Instead I am stuck on the publicity of the act. The full significance of a cross of ashes on my forehead is still out of my reach. If anything, such a display would contradict church readings that appear to discourage ostentatious signs of piety. “Rend your hearts, not your garments,” declares the prophet Joel (2:12) possibly correcting disingenuous mourners. And Jesus teaches us, “do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.” Mt (6:5-6) The Jewish Jesus and Joel both appear to want to hush up the more rowdy publicans with warnings not to be carried away with exterior performances of piety at the expense of neglecting interior conversion.
Oddly, wearing this article of my faith has a self-reflexive effect, causing me to ask if I am worthy of the mark and if I living up to the message that the mark bears. But as I experienced on the L train and in the public library the mark of ashes made familiar the one who wore them. A stranger became familiar! And my sense of connection with them through a shared faith brings me to the point. Faith is an integrative act. Even if it is expressed privately then it is not alone. The psalmist does not sing to himself “A clean heart create for me, God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.” Ps 51 Similarly, the prophet Joel urged interior conversion “rend your heart…and return to the LORD, your God.” Moreover, this unity finds expression in the customs of common worship. And all of you apart of Kairos reflect the knowledge of this when we come together. Sometimes we take our public stances of mourning, taking a symbol other than ashes, the black hood and orange jumpsuit. We foreshadow too, on Ash Wednesday, the mystery of Good Friday…when our walk for justice will make known the crucified people of today.
I close wondering how all of you bear this cross of ashes. If you are proud, if you are grateful, it would do me good to hear. Strengthen my unbelief. I would like to be as bold as Old Polycarp not to deny my faith but it seems that daily I do so, and without even the threat of death by wild animals or by burning. I am tempted to cover the cross of ashes with my hat. And if I can barely resist this I wonder what good I’ll be proclaiming my faith in the face of denizens of police protecting NATO-G8. Yes, I would compare the persecution of the early Christians to the persecution faced by protesters this May. A dogmatic Christian proponent of NATO-G8 is not a real Christian. Only the hypocrite could make war and call it peace, support “protection” on the premise of nuclear deterrence and suppose a free-market first depends on bringing stability.