We are not alone.
We are here with our enemies.(1)
Yesterday, I shared in this space two reservations about ashes-to-go, which can be summarized thusly: by separating the administration of ashes from the normative context of the Ash Wednesday lections and the optional context of the Holy Eucharist, the Church omits the day's inherent scriptural tension by which God prods his people to embody - not simply wear - our repentance.(2) Significantly, these reservations do not lead me away from the highly positive public engagement that ashes-to-go seeks to cultivate. On the contrary, I am lead to ask the question: "What would a faithful public engagement shaped by (but not simply a parrot of) Ash Wednesday look like?" I wonder, for example, how many barrier begin to come down when the Church goes to the ones outside and, as a people shaped by penitence, says, "I'm sorry." So my first start at an alternative to ashes-to-go is public forgiveness-seeking, which I write about in yesterday's post.
Today I want to ask the question: "How does one begin to explore the shape of public forgiveness-seeking?" I think it begins with the acknowledgment that we have enemies and that our enemies have us - that is, we are somebody's enemy.
In her beautiful book Getting Involved with God, Ellen Davis explores the cursing psalms (3) as prayers that are hard but meet and right to pray. We pray them rightly because the feelings in them are honest: they give voice to our real anger. Further, the cursing psalms locate our anger in the context of prayer, conversation, with God. By locating our anger in the context of conversation with God, the cursing psalms lead us to entrust vengeance to God. We all find ourselves able to pray these prayers every now and again. "But what about those days on which we don't feel angry?" she asks. Is this a case of Scripture's reading becoming dependent on - merely reflective of - my present emotional state? By no means...
Dr. Davis, again:
"Now, suppose you run across one of these psalms when you are blessedly free of the feelings they articulate. Is there any prayer opportunity for you then? The ancient rabbis said of scripture: 'Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.' If you have the courage (and it will take some), try turning the psalm a full 180 degrees, until it is directed at yourself, and ask: Is there anyone in the community of God's people who might want to say this to God about me - or maybe, about us?"(4)
She goes on to give this example:
"Here is one of several ways I could answer that question for myself: I am materially privileged beyond most people who are alive at this time, who have previously lived on the earth, or who will live in future generations. By social location, income, and personal habit, I am an active participant in a rapacious industrial economy, regularly consuming far more than I need of the world's goods. I have largely failed to moderate my lifestyle in accordance with what I can reasonably expect will be the needs of my great-grandchildren's generation, to say nothing of the present needs of those living today in the Two-Thirds World. Yes, there are those who might cry out to God this night or fifty years hence: 'Let her memory be cut off from the heart, because she did not remember to act in covenant faith but hounded a person poor and needy, crushed in heart, even to death...'" (5)
I frequently teach that Christian faithfulness involves learning to see others and the world through God's eyes. Equally important is learning to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Seeking others as God sees them and - at least from from time to time - attempting to see myself as others see me is the seed, I think, of public forgiveness-seeking: wearing, embodying, repentance and the forgiveness of God that we find on Ash Wednesday.
(1) A Taize hymn quoted in Ellen Davis' Getting Involved with God (MA: Cowley, 2001).
(2) See, for example, Isaiah 58:
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
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?
(3) You know - the ones we never read in church: "smash her children on the rocks," etc.
(4) Davis, again, p 28.
(5) Ibid., 28-29.