Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12; Ps 103:8-18; 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10; Matt 6:1-6, 16-21

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister

I’m not going to say Happy Valentine’s Day! The internet is having a field day about the convergence of these two dates — the Day of Abstinence and the Day of Anything But — but I think it’s strangely fitting that these two dates should overlap — because Valentine’s and the Christian life are both about desire.

Desire gets a bad rap in a lot of Christian teaching, particularly around Lent. We are told, in the old language, to beware “the devices and desires of our own hearts.” Theologians have labeled this misplaced or uncontrollable desire as “concupiscence,” and caution us against being led astray. There’s a straight line between these ancient teachings, which go back to the third century, and the work of Sigmund Freud, who describes the unconscious part of ourselves as a well of self-centered desire.  At its best,  our unconscious enables us to fulfill our most basic needs, but, uncontrolled, it might lead us to trample the needs and even the existence of others. The consensus is that our desires are dark and chaotic, and that, by extension, so are we. In that understanding, our only hope is to prune our desires, to live from our reason rather than our impulses, and to hope for mercy.  It’s also clear — and social science bears this out— that this not easily done.[1]

Even the most cursory glance at the condition of our world demonstrates the truth at the core of these teachings. Our world is a case study in misplaced desire: desire that foments war, consumes the substance of our planet, amasses wealth in the hands of billionaires while millions of people struggle lack adequate shelter, food, and medical care.  The prophet Isaiah describes a world in “rebellion” against God — an image which sometimes sounds extreme, but which, this year, feels right on point.

I suspect that most of us can think of a time in our life in which we lost control of our desires and ended up in a mess; most of us can probably also readily identify this pattern in others.  But this dark view of who we are is only half the story — and not the most important half.  The central desire in the Christian faith — in the world, even — is not the desires which push us around like boats on a stormy sea; it’s the strong and eternal desire with which God desires us.

Desire is why God created the universe. Desire is why he knelt on the ground and formed us in his own image. Desire is why he set us free on the good earth, to be nourished and to learn and to grow. Desire is why, even when we made a wreckage of our lives and of one another, God’s son chose to take flesh and blood and live among us and die and rise again to make us whole.  When Solomon wrote, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me,” the mystics immediately recognized their own experience in prayer: the experience of being drawn, by a darkling way, into the heart of God.

This is crucial to our lives. The Brazilian theologian Maria Clara Bingemer reminds us that “when we talk about desire we are talking about human beings at their deepest level, in their deepest and ultimate truth, in their vital force, and therefore in their most authentic and legitimate aspirations.” In Christ, the deepest notes of our humanity are not dark urges to be shunned and feared; they are the hidden ground on which our souls are able to touch and to be transformed by the divine humanity of God. Bingemer continues, saying that in Christ, “the divine pathos…has broken silence and become a loving and calling word, kindling …in the hearts of humankind an irresistible and insatiable desire” to be with God as God wishes to be with us.[2]

The disorder in this world, and in ourselves, stems from our trivialization of that desire. The prophet Isaiah has it exactly right when he speaks of the hypocrisy we have made of our faith, the profound gap between what we believe and how we live. It is so much easier to come to church and perform a ritual than it is to sit still and listen with compassion to the story of a broken life. It is easier to fast for a day than to live moderately upon this earth over the course of a lifetime. It is vastly easier to bemoan unjust systems, to post about them on social media, than it is to run for office or organize with protesters or found a non-profit and do something to make things better.

But those same rituals, used well, point the way forward, just as God’s grace, taken on God’s terms, is the true means of our transformation. Fasting is not an exercise in piosity, but a practical response to the evil of this world, “the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.” (EOW I, p. 56) Fasting — whether from food or social media or buying clothing or feeding our own cynicism — disconnects us from our disordered desire and opens space for us to hear the true call of God which is in our heart.

And our faith is not an array of public practices which let us feel good about ourselves and look good in the eyes of others. It’s a conscious decision to live by a different set of standards and values, one in which the needs of other people and creatures and the fostering of community are seen as more important than our frivolous desires. By God’s mercy, we are given strength to face the god-shaped hole in our hearts and to fill it, not with toys and stuff and status and acclaim — all the things which just leave us wanting something more — but with God’s own love for us. The only thing which can fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts is God.

And so we are marked today with ash as a sign of the gap between who we are and who, by God’s grace we can become. We are marked with a cross because our penitence is rooted in hope.  If we did not believe that our errors can be met with God’s compassion, there would be no reason to do any of this. But because we know Jesus, because we trust (no matter how feebly) in the cross, we do not live without hope. We know that God is the one who rebuilds our ancient ruins; who raises up on the earth we have scorched a new foundation stronger than death; that God is working even now to repair the breaches in our souls and in our communities and make our streets places to gather and to meet, not just to pass one another by. God is still at work in this world, and in you. This Lent, open your life and let yourself be made whole.

[1] Jonathan Haidt, for example, describes our reason as the rider on the elephant of our “gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions.” The elephant is much stronger than the rider; that’s more, the rider evolved to serve the needs of the elephant.
[2] “Women in the Future of the Theology of Liberation,” in The Future of Liberation Theology: Essays in Honor of Gustavo Gutierrez, p. 478-478, cited by Constance Fitzgerald, “The Desire for God and the Transformative Power of Contemplation,” Desire, Darkness, and Hope, 152-3.

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