Isaiah 58:1-12 (NRSV)
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

We get the idea of Lent from the story of Jesus being tested by the Devil for 40 days in the wilderness. But there’s no instructional section in our Bible for these holy days. There’s no “How to celebrate Christmas” chapter of Acts or a “What to do on Easter” part of Paul’s letters. Even wedding celebrations and funerals are unscripted by our Bible. The traditions we have adapted have come down to us from those who first tried them out, many years ago. At some point in time, they were new. Such is the case with Ash Wednesday and Lent.

You can bet that Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness for forty days with a cross made of ground ashes rubbed into his head. This is something we’ve decided we needed to do, or rather, something we’ve decided would be helpful for us at this time of year as we try to walk with Jesus. And yet there’s a reason the imposition of ashes, the fasting from something significant, the taking up of new disciplines, the forty days of preparation, has been passed from one generation to the next–and a reason faith communities like ours, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have decided to adopt this ancient way of marking the 40 days before celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. We’ve learned there’s power in admitting we need to rely more on God and less on ourselves. There’s a gift in being marked as one of Jesus’ followers–not by the jewelry we wear–but by the sign of the ashes. The forty days of fasting and prayer and introspection and service force us to take a break from running on autopilot, as we do nowadays most of the time. In short, our ancestors have handed this tradition to us because they found in it a lifeline. May we find such a lifeline, too, in the days of reflection and repentance.

While Jesus didn’t have an outline for following Lent or for remembering Ash Wednesday, he did have the prophets. And the prophet Isaiah informed so much of Jesus’ ministry. Isaiah says here that the ways God’s people have sought to follow God have been short-sighted. They have practiced rituals, but haven’t allowed those practices to inform their lives. While the people did what was expected of them, in fasting, in prayer, in humbling themselves, in the various forms of worship they had inherited from their ancestors, they lacked the heart to follow God in ways that would change their behavior toward the people around them, in ways that would better the lives of the people they were supposed to be impacting. Their families were miserable because their fasting made them grumpy. They humbled themselves, but those who were hungry and oppressed near them never saw real and true empathy coming from them. But, says Isaiah, if you will fast in a different way, you’ll know what God’s blessing is like. Fast from power. Fast from exclusive wealth. Fast from having too much. Fast from selfish greed. And the way that you fast from these things is to share.

Share power and freedom and strength with the people who are being treated unfairly by your society. Share your bread. Share your homes. Share your wealth. Share your presence with the people who need you most–some even in your own families! And then, and then, says Isaiah, your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer. Isaiah says, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noon day.” You’ll be strengthened. And you’ll provide a hope and a future for generations yet to come. You’ll have a new name, “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in.”

When I was a child, I lost a dear friend in a car accident. I was 13. She hadn’t quite yet celebrated her 13th birthday. At that time, I started asking myself questions about what made her life worthwhile. Was her life worth something even though she had never grown up? Never fallen in love? Never had a career? Never gotten married? Never had children? Never bought a car or a home? And I came to decide that her life did have meaning, it was worthwhile not because she conformed in any way to our word’s vision of success, but because her life impacted mine and the lives of other people. She was that girl who would hang out with the new kid, even if hanging out with the new kid meant she’d be ridiculed, too. She was that sixth-grader who would stand up to the bully, even if it meant she’d get pelted with the snowballs. She was that encourager of the misfits, even though she could easily have fit in with the most popular people. When I read Isaiah’s words in this passage, I’m reminded of her. And I’m grateful. She became, for me, a repairer of the breach, the best of the middle schoolers, and, in her absence, a life teacher.

I don’t think this is a mysterious magic formula any more than I think ashes on your head makes God love you more. I think what following these practices outlined here in Isaiah 58 does is shift the practice of faith away from being about purity and sinlessness and believing the right thing and toward loving the people God loves who are being ignored or avoided or oppressed or wounded. Who cares how pure you are from outside contamination if your heart isn’t broken by the obstacles in someone’s life–even if that someone is very near to you? Your child? Your neighbor? Your coworker? Your daily acquaintance? Your spouse? Or maybe even the obstacle you have placed in your own life, keeping you from living authentically and from loving well?

The message of Ash Wednesday is that we are temporary. We are only here a short while. From dust you have been formed and to dust you will return. Maybe sooner than you think. My friend only had 12 years. So there is urgency in our hearing the words of Isaiah and getting this right–or, at least, trying harder to get things right. So that’s what we’re saying by putting ashes on our heads. These ashes here at SouthPark Christian Church were made from last year’s palms (at First Christian, the ashes were made from the prior year’s written prayer concerns). They are souvenirs of the parade thrown in Jesus’ honor by fickle people who would turn on him quickly. We are all those people. But today, this season, we promise to try to be strong, to turn the direction that loves God’s people well and fearlessly.

From ancient times Christians have on this day searched their hearts and sought to be cleansed from sin. They have sought reconciliation with God and with one another. They have received ashes marked on their foreheads as a sign of sin’s disfigurement and of their own mortality (Chalice Worship, p.108).

As we prepare to receive the ashes, may we consider these words from Jan Richardson:

So let us be marked–not for sorrow.
And let us be marked–not for shame.
Let us be marked, not for false humility,
or for thinking we are less than we are.
but for claiming what God can do
within the dust, within the stuff of which the world is made
and the stars that blaze within our bones
and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.

Amen.

by Jolin Wilks McElroy
March 1, 2017

Photo by Laura West of decorations at First Christian Church for Lent 2017