The rare, the unburdened, the care-free;
the mysterious, the unravelling, the beautifully poetic;
the passionate, the heart-breaking, the tortuous, the erotic;
the outrageous, the outraged, the bloodied and the torn
Telling me stories, singing me songs, writing me poems that make me cry,
dancing me to the beginning of your love
this is the mystery of you
deep calling out to deep in the roar of your waterfalls…
Ooh, calm down a bit. Well, it all sounds good but turn any of that good old fashioned creative spirit over to humans, and we are likely to codify it, label it, disect it, put it in a cabinet and stare at it. At certain times. And only certain people can stare. Most cannot be trusted not to touch, and probably won’t understand, so can read the explanatory note in the guidebook.
That is what religion so often does to the power and mystery of God. Answers our biggest questions with rules about haberdashery, and explores our deepest emotions by restricting us to yesterday’s ideas.
I love the mystery of Jesus because although he seems to have inspired one of the most codified religions, and was himself part of one, what he himself lived and taught and breathed was freedom. Codes can give us freedom; rules can give us freedom. Of course. But what Ash Wednesday reminds us is that although he likes it, like I like it when someone else washes the car or loads the dishwasher, it is not essential. I can live without it. By it, I mean ‘religion’. Religious things. Surplus to requirements. Not necessarily bad. But if they are all there is, Ash Wednesday tells us to ditch them.
The readings include Joel 2.1-2, 12-17, Isaiah 58.1-12, and Matthew 6.1-6. They are great. This is some of Isaiah 58:
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD ?
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Love it. God tells it like it is. This is some of Matthew 6:
1“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Jesus – what a way with words. Can you imagine followers of Jesus babbling?!
The primary action on Ash Wednesday for Anglicans is the imposition of ashes. We have a ritual about not having rituals! Love it. Why? Because rituals aren’t bad in themselves. Because the ashes represent all that is broken and lost in the world, the burnt cross of the execution stake. Because they are smeared and spread on our foreheads, imposed on the most viewed part of us, smudged across our make-up, spoiling our fringe, and sometimes forgotten about until someone says ‘when did you last wash?’
God always wants to remind us to do decent service, not to do a decent service. To serve, not to do a good Sunday service. Not to fast whilst we are still slagging off our colleagues; not to worship whilst we are stealing money from our investors; not to pray in public lest we forget to clothe the naked.
This can be imposition for us. So easily we – and I include me – slip into the kingdom of comfort, feel we’ve done our time in the kingdom of pain. We become desensitised, we get compassion-fatigue or whatever else we call it. We forget to be human and humane and close our eyes to the suffering of those around us. To remember is an imposition. To be reminded is an inconvenience.
Well, says God, allow me to impose. Allow me to inconvenience you. Because any sort of faith that doesn’t have at its heart God’s care for the exiled, the pained, the tortured, the bereaved and the hurting is no faith I recognise. Any faith that speaks of caring for the poor as if that is a hobby and not a lifestyle or a giving choice along with buying free-range eggs is not a faith I recognise. Any faith that talks solely about sin and death and salvation to the next life isn’t a faith I recognise. Any faith that doesn’t welcome and truly welcome the strange and the stranger and the strangest is not a faith I recognise.
Allow me to impose, says God. Because I get religion-fatigue. I can’t be bothered any more. Your religion interests me; I would love to study it sometime. Your religion may help you; but I would love to help you sometime. Please, for goodness sake get back to basics, strip it down and see what you really need. I think you’ll find it’s me. And I’m naked.