Bearing Witness - Ash Wednesday, Year C, 3.2.22
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness: through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Church, we had a delightful Shrove Tuesday gathering yesterday. We ate and laughed and flipped pancakes and decorated the parking lot with sidewalk chalk . . . The weather even cooperated. It was so great and just what this girl’s heart needed.
And yet, mingled in between trips to the condiment table and coffee station, there were also plenty of comments about the perceived heaviness of the world right now.
The world continues to feel like it’s on fire. Russia has invaded Ukraine. Western nations are rallying around the invaded state when they said previously they would not. President Putin seems particularly reckless and unpredictable. He has made threats about nuclear weapons. It all feels so 20th century (which is, admittedly, a very strange thing to say)—whether that be World Wars or Cold Wars . . . things we haven’t necessarily thought were still before us. And after years now of pandemic—or plague—floods, fires, droughts, murder hornets . . . the world feels particularly frail and on edge right now.
“Remember you are dust. And to dust you shall return.”
Perhaps Ash Wednesday is the perfect day for this moment. A day when we remember before God the fleeting nature and frailty of our lives—and how there is a paradoxical, or counterintuitive, permanence and even comfort within that idea: from God we came and to God we shall return. If we can count on nothing else, we can count on this.
And yet here we are still, now. In this moment. In all our brokenness and frailty. That comfort that we just spoke of is the big picture, but we are here still in the thick of things. What do we do with this moment?
Lent is a season where we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, and ultimately, to the cross. We bear witness to his life, as indeed God bore witness to our own lives in becoming human and suffering alongside with us.
Annie Dillard, in her essay Teaching a Stone to Talk, says, “we are here to witness.”* The world’s wonder and beauty, its quirkiness and awkwardness, and—yes—its brokenness and heartache . . . we are here to witness all of it.
And what does it mean to witness but to pay attention? It strikes me that this is part of the issue at play in our reading from Isaiah today. The prophet is calling out a people who have forgotten how to bear witness, how to pay attention. They are fasting, and making offerings, and worshipping, but can’t see that they are treating their own workers unjustly, they can’t see their own fighting, they can’t see the one who is hungry, who is sleeping on the temple steps as they make their way in to worship.
Lent is a season where we look inward, yes, but it cannot only be that. It is an intentional dialogue between us and God about the relationship of ourselves to the world. There is deep wisdom in an ancient tradition that says, “we must make this journey to the cross before we can properly recognize the significance and the joy of Easter.” To rush to Easter celebration without the long, long road of Lent is to risk turning Easter into a caricature of toxic positivity.
And so here is where we begin. With our frailty, our impermanence. This is the way we mark the beginning of our journey. What is mortality to you or to me? We ask that question of ourselves and each other today.
Author and liturgist Cole Arthur Riley takes that idea from Annie Dillard further and asks, “how will we bear witness to the dust this Lent?”** How will we pay attention? How will we bear witness before God to the suffering, frailty, and mortality all around us in this beautiful and broken world of ours in an intentional way this Lent?
Rather than giving something up for Lent this year, I’m planning on praying through the news each day as I endeavor to bear witness to the dust. We are bombarded with news, but I don’t think that merely hearing it, or seeing it, or being aware of it is the same as bearing witness to it. I do not want to close myself off from the suffering of this world, but neither do I want to succumb to it. That is all too tempting when the world feels as it does right now. So I’m going to do something with that suffering, however small that something might be. I’m going to pray. And maybe in that small way I might learn better how to bear witness to this world of ours in a way that motivates rather than immobilizes. It may often feel like there’s nothing we can do. But we can always pray.
So that’s what I’m going to do. You might choose to intentionally look around when you’re downtown and make eye contact with folks you see there. You might choose to read something written by someone of a different race, socio-economic status, gender, or sexual orientation than you.
And whatever you do, remember that there is always beauty in the dust of our lives. Afterall, our creation came from the dust. That beauty is what equips us to carry the weight of the world. There are moments like we had yesterday at our Shrove Tuesday gathering. There is joy and there is courage and there is love. Bear witness to the brokenness and suffering, yes. But bear witness to the beauty, too. And whenever possible, join in. As Frederick Buechner once said, “here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
In a few moments we will all be invited to the observance of a Holy Lent. We will be reminded of our own and each other’s mortality as we receive the imposition of ashes. We will bear witness to our acknowledgement of our mutual frailty. We will begin our walk to Jerusalem and the cross with our eyes, ears, and hearts wide open to this world around us. We will try to walk in the solidarity that Jesus himself modeled with us. And ultimately we’ll bring it all to the cross, where Jesus stands with us. But first we must make the journey.
Let us pray with Cole Arthur Riley:
“God of the Ashes, Today, let us hold the tension of this story of our making—born of the dirt, beautifully connected to the earth we walk on. And yet, the reality of our own mortality. That our common decay cannot be escaped. As we begin Lent, help us to become honest about the ways our societies and selfhoods are marred by injustice, cruelty, neglect, and greed. Help us to see our own role in the decay of the world; that as we push back evil, we might become people capable of admitting those secret evils which dwell in us. And as we name how we’ve been complicit in the ashes of this world, help us to bear them in solidarity and hope knowing you are a God who has always seen sacred potential in the dust.”*** Amen.
* Annie Dillard, “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk.
** Cole Arthur Riley, @Blackliturgies, Instagram. February 26, 2022, https://www.instagram.com/p/Cam014XuP4e/
*** Cole Arthur Riley, @Blackliturgies, Instagram. March 2nd, 2022. https://www.instagram.com/p/Cac1leHOnoM/