Can we remember Ash Wednesday without guilt? Can Lent be an embodied, rather than ascetic season? Is it possible to focus on transformation and creativity – the simplicity of spirit – that awakens us to quotidian resurrections throughout the Lenten and Easter Season?
In the Roman Catholic mass, worshipers repeat: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I wonder how many congregants focus on the first section, “Lord, I am not worthy…” and omit the words of promise that follow, “Just say the word and I shall be healed?” Although the Roman Catholic church recently changed these words, now more reflective of Matthew’s intent, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” the statement is still ambiguous spiritually, emotionally, and theologically. It places unworthiness as primary and love as an afterthought. It makes sin rather than blessing “original” to our nature.
Words matter! I believe that words repeated over and over again can transform our cells as well as our souls, our unconscious as well as our conscious minds; and I wonder how many souls have shriveled, and how many feelings of self-loathing, have emerged from repeating these words over the centuries. Yes, God heals, but are we really unworthy of God’s love and care? They suggest that God loves us in spite of who we are, not because we are God’s children. They create a bridge between God and us in which we are passive and can do nothing on our own to remedy our situation. What would we think of child-parent relationship, characterized by the child’s “I am not worthy of your love?”
I feel the same way about many of the words invoked on Ash Wednesday and, frankly, omit them from the lectionary as reflective of my commitment to healthy, life-transforming, and abundant-living theology and spirituality. Ponder these words from Psalm 51:
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
What feelings emerge as your reflect on them? Do our sins only affect God? What about actions or omissions that harm others, human and non-human? Doesn’t the impact of our actions on our fellow creatures, human and non-human matter? Further, is God primarily some sort of hanging judge, whose primary task is to punish us when we have sullied God’s honor? Are we really born guilty, sinful from the start, and naughty by nature? I advise you to eliminate this part of the Psalm unless you are planning to address it as an existential statement, related to how we feel when we turn away from God to our own finite and self-serving schemes.
I recall a curious conversation some thirty years ago at a wedding reception. My wife, two year old son, and I were placed near a staunch Calvinist. Somehow the discussion turned to the nature of sin. (I never look forward to theological conversations at weddings or on airplanes!) He asserted that his two year old was selfish, sinful, and depraved. I didn’t really want to argue with him; but I thought to myself, “Well, his daughter may be depraved, but my son isn’t!” I also pondered the impact of such guilt-oriented theologies of peoples’ overall well-being, self-esteem, and joy in life. What happens when you hear that you are essentially depraved from childhood? What happens when you grow up believing that God is an oversensitive and arbitrary sovereign, easily angered, ready to punish, and offended by any creativity on our part? What happens when deep down you believe that God is out to get you? I do not believe we need to debase ourselves to give God glory or affirm God’s majesty. God is not an egocentric potentate who needs self-abasing to be pleased with us. In fact, I believe that when we rejoice in the creature we implicitly give thanks to the Creator. Faith is not an either/or proposition – God or the world – but a both/and proposition – in the language of my teacher, John Cobb, God and the world.
I believe that Ash Wednesday can be a day of healing and transformation! I believe that we can hold in contrast our own sin and brokenness with our inherent value as God’s beloved! Ash Wednesday is a call to reflective action, not brooding morbidity. I believe that we can experience Ash Wednesday without guilt!
Let us begin with the rehabilitation of Psalm 51. We need to take a long, hard look at the words: “Against you only [God] I have sinned.” Do they really portray the impact of our destructive attitudes and behavior? In fact, they may minimize the impact of sin by making it an abstraction rather than a concrete lived reality. There is no doubt that there is enough brokenness, abuse, violence, and destruction to go around. Although I believe that God experiences the pain of the world, seeing our sin as primarily an offense against God minimizes the harm we do to children killed because of “wild west” notions of gun possession; glaciers falling into the ocean as a result of our consumption; animals brutalized in factory farms; babies starving due to economic and governmental policies; persons begging for food, shelter, and health care in the wealthiest nation on Earth! God feels our pain, but God can endure it; many of our fellow creatures are destroyed physically, emotionally, and spiritually as a result of our actions, lifestyle, governmental policies, and omissions.
Let me state this clearly as the heart of any creation-affirming theology: When we love creation, we love God. When we hurt creation, we hurt God. Everything we do touches God, but it more significantly touches the mortals who are our companions on planet Earth. Our pain matters, and their pain matters, not because it is an affront to God – although it is! – but because unnecessary pain destroys the beauty of experience. It harms vulnerable ones and diminishes possibilities for abundant life. Yes, God is the fellow sufferer who understands, but this can’t be affirmed apart from the recognition of creaturely suffering.
We need also to transform the words, “I was born guilty” as unworthy of the divine proclamation, “and it was good.” The first words every child needs to hear are: I love you, you matter, you are valuable, or as Aibileen says to the neglected toddler Mae Mobley in The Help “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Blessing always comes before correction. Love is more important than punishment. Many of our sins would be eliminated preventatively if we were told early and often – and treated in ways that affirmed – that we are good, loved, valuable, and worthy. Let Ash Wednesday be a day of spiritual affirmation.
The words of Joel and Jesus speak of inner transformation. We can change and turn around, and open ourselves and the world to new and creative possibilities. We are not condemned to repeat past pain and injustice, we can become new creations. We don’t need to boast of our piety. Instead, we need to become people whose actions are pious and holy, and healing to the earth and its creatures. The spiritual journey joins inner and outer, and contemplation and action.
The words of Joel assert that transformed spirits lead to transformed social conditions and to greater manifestations of divine energy. What we do matters to God and opens or closes doors to God’s love for us and all creation. God is merciful and loving, but the impact of God’s love in the world is connected with willingness to be channels of justice and healing.
Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount are a counsel to authentic spirituality, not external exhibitionism. Let your relationship with God be heart-felt and not advantageous socially or economically. Let it come forth as an inner fire that gives light to the world. Opening to divine fire, we become agents of transformation, and companions in God’s quest to heal the world.