It’s About the Heart – February 14, 2018
You may have noticed that there were no pop ups on your lap top, iPhones or iPads suggesting that you get out to purchase your Ash Wednesday Hallmark cards. Ah, but I’ll bet you’ve had several about sending flowers, visiting the jewelry store, making that dinner reservation—all to be in step with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.
As dark a connotation as this day has with its focus on mortality and its signature metaphor of ashes on our forehead, it’s the one religious holyday that has not been marred by the culture of consumerism. There’s no Ash Wednesday Peanuts special and no invasion of a Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, or 4 am Doorbuster sales. Nope. However we feel about Ash Wednesday, we get this one all to ourselves. Our culture doesn’t know what to do with a day that reminds us that we’re all going to die.
What about these grimy ashes? Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor, offered these words on the Ash Wednesday after 9/11: “When I went to the rail this year I received a different sacrament. The gospel of the day is not about the poverty of flesh so much as it is about the holiness of ashes, which are worthy of all reverence. It was God who decided to breathe on them, after all, God who chose to bring them to life. We are certainly dust and to dust we shall return, but in the meantime our bodies are sources of deep revelation for us…Those ashes are not curses. They are blessings instead, announcing God’s undying love of dust no matter what kind or shape it is in.”
Let the mark, the grit, the touch of a finger on our forehead help us to look without fear at our mortality. Let these ashes be a reminder that we are being transformed from glory to glory by God’s love and grace. Remember not just the limitations but the possibilities inherent in your humanity. Remember that you are dust but remember that God created you to live in God’s own image. Remember that you are dust, but remember that you are in a living, growing, unfolding relationship with God and with each other.
So, once again, the church season we know as “Lent” begins with a somber liturgy, a smear of ashes, and a call to both give up and give in to, to surrender to, God’s call for serious self-reflection and a determined effort to grow our relationship with God and one another.
In her book , In Kneeling in Jerusalem, Ann Weems writes “Lent is a time to let the power of our faith story take hold for us, a time to let the events get up and walk around in us, a time to intensify our living into Christ, a time to hover over the thoughts of our hearts…a time to allow a fresh new taste of God.”
“A time to hover over the thoughts of our hearts.” We might be drawn in today to the words in the Scriptures that prescribe fasting—the acts of giving up something like sweets, meat, fatty foods, alcohol, or whatever little pleasure we think will make God happy. Clearly, a fast from something that may be unhealthy is not a bad thing and I’m not discouraging it at all. The things we choose to do or not to do are not meant to change the world; they are meant to change us.
Perhaps it’s the coincidence that Ash Wednesday this year comes on a day the world is thinking about love and romance that draws my attention to the “heart” and how it figures into the 40 day spiritual journey we begin together today. Joel the Prophet tells the people to rend or tear their hearts, not their clothing. The Hebrews would rend their clothing as a sign of repentance or mourning. Our heart is the center of all emotion and to rend or tear it in scriptural terms is to go beyond external gestures and open oneself fully to God’s grace and love and through that grace to open our hearts to one another.
We hear about our heart in the Gospel as well: “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” Nineteenth century poet Cyprian Norwid once said that a truly fulfilling life involves three requirements: We need something to live on, something to live for, and something to die for. The lack of one of these attributes, Norwid claims, “results in drama. The lack of two in tragedy.” The hardest part of his recommendation for a fulfilling life is what makes Lent a challenge: deciding what we are willing to die for. It’s also, I believe, what Jesus alludes to in those striking words: “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”
Throughout our history we have examples of sheer sacrifice for the sake of others. In more modern times we find Mother Maria, the Orthodox nun who exchanged places in the Nazi death camp with a mother who had several children and went to the gas chamber in her stead. Jonathan Daniels was an Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist assassinated by a shotgun-wielding deputy sheriff in Alabama while in the act of shielding a 17-year-old African American girl.
Few of us, thanks be to God, will be called on to give our lives for others. Yet we all live with a treasure chest of what really matters to us, who really matters to us. “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” Herein is our call to live less selfishly, to forgive more freely, and to love more fully. We are all made of the same dust and that makes us all family in the eyes of God.
What would happen to our world if we begin to see each other as kin? Is there a way to give love, to be in love without self-offering? Not for Jesus, but what about us? A credit card company once asked the question, “What’s in your wallet?” Today Jesus asks, “What’s in your heart?”