Ash Wednesday (Year B, Narrative Lectionary)
22 February 2012
Isaiah 58:1-17, Mark 9:30-50
What’s the smallest unit of measure in any society? The individual… Individuals make up our families, whether by blood or choice. The solo person gets added to more solo people and then we have a group… a congregation… a town… a state… and so on. There is no such thing as a self-made individual because everyone has some help along the way. No one makes himself or herself from the ground up. What’s the smallest unit of individual? A child.
In our society, Western society, the child is the smallest individual. When we look at children, we see the possibility of a future productive individual, so we spend our energy in shaping that person. “What about the children?” is such a central question to our way of thinking that we easily miss what Jesus is saying by using a child as an example in this gospel lesson.
In this period (and for well beyond it and still in some parts of the world today), children were not the smallest individual unit of society. They were the smallest productive members of the smallest societal unit- the family. If you survived infancy, the relief was not only that you lived, but that now you could help out! You could sweep, run errands, change straw, watch animals, help cook… whatever was appropriate for your gender and your family’s status. And you were socially invisible. A child still didn’t count until he or she was marrying out and cost money or marrying in and bringing money. A child is a non-person, uncounted.
So when Jesus, sighing over the disciples’ fight about greatness, calls a child… this should get our attention. First, Jesus separates the Twelve, so there must be a larger group. Secondly, the larger group must have men and women in it because a group of only men wouldn’t have children in it. Thirdly, the children might be invisible, but they can hear and they must have known who Jesus was or heard stories about him.
When Jesus sits the Twelve down and the rest of the crowd is close enough for the Teacher to call a child over, everyone is listening. And then Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever welcomes on such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” A non-person, an invisible being represents Jesus, God on earth? An emissary represents his or her sender. The emissary of the king comes glittering and riding a fine horse, even if the king is struggling, because how people perceive the emissary is how they perceive the king.
Jesus is the Divine Emissary. How Jesus is perceived (and received) is how God is perceived (and received). And here Jesus is telling the disciples (and everyone else) that in order to welcome God, you must train yourself to see what you previously treated as invisible. Invisible like a child. Like a leper. Like a person with AIDS. Like hungry Africans. Like homeless Alaska Natives. Like a teenager with an eating disorder. Like a friend with depression. Like a lesbian or a gay man. Like a couple after a miscarriage. Like a person who goes to prison for murder. In order to welcome God, you must train yourself to see what you previously treated as invisible.
In the season of Lent, many of us turn inward- thinking about our personal spiritual practices, our internal habits. There is nothing wrong with this. The ashes on our foreheads are also on our hearts, covering our quiet prayers, our doubts, our inward struggles. But Lent is not only about introspection. The inward reflection must be met with outward actions. Consider the words of Isaiah: Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble onself? 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? Is this not 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? 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?”
Here’s the thing about Lenten discipline. We want to make it about God and me. God and Bob. God and Phyllis. God and Gene. Whether we set aside things that are truly in our way spiritually or whether we take up disciplines to challenge our thinking and our faith, the ultimate result shouldn’t be God and me… it should be God in me. Christ in me. Spirit in me.
“God and me” is taken care of through Jesus the Christ. But God in me matters to the people I encounter every day. In order to welcome God, we must train ourselves to see what we previously treated as invisible. If you have ashes on your head (or on your heart), if you say you believe, if you wear a cross, if you participate in church activities of any kind… you are an emissary. What you do reflects the one who sends you. What you do reflects on Christ. On your Creator. On your Advocate. The people we miss because they are invisible to us are being denied an experience of Christ because of us. The people whom we engage with grace are having an experience of Christ because of us. Are we willing to open ourselves to greater encounters in Christ and with Christ as we walk toward resurrection?
This Lenten season, are we prepared to die, within ourselves and in our actions, to our prejudices, to our blind spots, to our fears, to our insecurities? Are you prepared to fast from injustice, from anger, from judgment, and from mistrust? Do you believe that you can close your eyes, receive the ashes- that marker of mortality, and have your eyes opened to new possibilities of grace? Are you willing to let Christ do that in you and through you?
Even on Ash Wednesday, we are Easter people. Resurrection begins right now. You are an ambassador, an emissary for Christ, in Christ, with Christ…
On each of these forty days, and beyond, God will be encountering you in other people. Do you see them? Do they see Christ?