Ashes for the World

C.Z. Shi

Since Lent 2020 seems to have never ended but simply lumbered on, carrying our now raw and limping carcasses behind, it’s difficult to consider how we should renew the experience. Once again we’ve arrived at the gateway to the weeks of bright sadness–but do we want to enter? Did we ever exit?

Each of us will find how we are to engage (or not engage) these days, hopefully with the help of our pastors and those who know us best. But whatever we fast from–or don’t, whatever practice we add–or don’t, I’m convinced that this is a good year to be freed from the tyranny of self-expression by remembering how Lent is not only about my personal experience (what I hope to feel or leave behind or re-engage, what discipline I need) but also about how I enter into the suffering of this aching world.

On Ash Wednesday (in non-pandemic years at least), we’re marked with ashes and reminded that these same friends in line with us will one day lower us into the dirt. With all of creation, we groan. With every other human who has ever lived, we labor under death’s grey gloom. In Lent, we remember that our lot as humans is tied up together–and that our hope is entirely wrapped up together, in Jesus the Crucified, in Jesus the Risen One.

On Ash Wednesday, we repent. Not merely for my sins and shortcomings, but for the world’s. We name our collective greed, our racialized evil, our abuse of the poor, our outrageous consumption, our failure to welcome and protect vulnerable children, our disdain for the immigrant, our failure as stewards of creation, our failure to nurture friendship and tenderness and self-sacrifice and bold courage and the virtues that would make us the kind of community that we would actually hope to hand to our daughters and sons.

And our repentance is not on behalf of “those sinners.” We take on the ashes. We say the words. We confess how we, with all our human family, are the problem. We refuse to separate ourselves with self-righteous godspeak. We confess for ourselves and for all who are unable to utter the words, all who need God’s grace as much as we do.

This Lent, this “on behalf of” element is far more potent, as so few of us will actually be there in body to receive the sooted cross on our forehead. Small numbers of us will receive ashes on behalf of so many.

Perhaps this will be enough this Lent. We can bend our weary body and allow our words, born of pain and sorrow, to confess our collective need. We can be the ones who will take on the burden to tend to hope’s candle, the ones who offer our tears, the ones who cling to God’s mercy on behalf of everyone in the world who needs the love that holds us all.

Church is the group of disciples of Jesus who take upon themselves the sin of the world. Not the way Jesus did, of course, but in confession, in contrition…in confessing that God is our judge and has every right to be our judge. The role of the church in taking on judgment on Ash Wednesday is to do it for all of the people who are not there, and to confess the world’s sin not only on behalf of ourselves but on behalf of those who are not there—ALL of those who are not there. This is what the church does. The church is the representative in the world of God’s forgiven and justified sinners. We want to model that. We want to model what it means to be God’s sinful, forgiven, and justified people. {Fleming Rutledge}

Confession and Desire

Miska and I have a running joke that if I were ever to go completely unhinged and do something stupid like have an affair, I'd manage to keep it under wraps for about 19 seconds. When guilt hits, I go blabbing. When I was in second grade, I went running to my mom, in tears, confessing the evil I'd done. "What happened, Winn?" my mom asked. "I cursed," I answered. "I said upchuck." How my mom held back the laughter, I'll never know.

Recently, Miska, in a strange turn of conversation, was forced to cough up that she had snooped around to find out what gifts I had bought her last Christmas. She logged into my email. She poked around my Amazon account. She didn't happen upon her information; she executed MI5 style tactics. I'm surprised she didn't waterboard the boys to make them talk. I like surprises, so I was irritated by her admission. More, though, I was impressed. Given my psyche, I can't fathom engaging in that chicanery and then just tooling along as if nothing happened. 

My confessive compulsion is a bit much. However, the act of confession, of saying the truth about something, is an immense gift. We tend to think of "confessing our sins" as necessary bookkeeping, knocking off a litany of all our inappropriate behavior so that God will then knock these same items off his list of things to smack us for. Confession, I believe, is closer to the moment when I stop playing coy with Miska and admit I really crave her touch. Or when Seth falls flat on the hard ground, spread eagle with his face smashed into pavement — then amid tears and pain makes it plain he wants nothing but his dad to gather him up and hold him tight. Of course, there's nothing I want in that moment more than to rush to his side and pour love over his hurt.

In Scripture, confessing our sins is simply the way of speaking the truth to God so that we can stop living in the far away corner and get on receiving love. Confessing our sins isn't the point. Forgiveness is the point. Love and friendship is the point. Living the good life – that's the thing God's working in all this. Lent is the season of clearing the air, of confessing what is, the season of getting on with the good life.

Confession is about healing that pours into our cracked places, our alone places. Confession is about coming clean with the fact that, left to our lonesome, we are lost – but also owning the fact that we dare to long for much, much more. To confess is to say the truth about ourselves and our place and our desire. Confessing how we've trespassed the commandments is a humbling thing. Confessing how we've abandoned good and true desires — that's a terrifying thing.

Orthodox priests speak this prayer after private confession:

May God who pardoned David through Nathan the prophet when he confessed his sins, and Peter weeping bitterly for his denial, and the sinful woman weeping at his feet, and the publican and the prodigal son, may the same God forgive you all things, through me a sinner, both in this world and in the world to come, and set you uncondemned before his terrible Judgment seat. Having no further care for the sin which you have confessed, depart in peace.

Clear the air. Say it clean. Then depart, without a care. In peace.