Ash Wednesday: Free to Know, Free to Admit, Free to Go Home

In the February 17, 2015, edition of the New York Times, David Brooks wrote about the experience of many, mostly soldiers returning from battle, who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Brooks cites recent research suggesting that, while a therapeutic approach to healing is often helpful, what is needed is a “moral reckoning” that deals not only with fear, but also with guilt, whether guilt taken on for wrongdoing, or, often, guilt borne unnecessarily.

Brooks describes those suffering with PTSD as in “exile—moral exile.” How fitting, then, that this column should appear the day before Ash Wednesday, the day on which Christians gather to acknowledge wrongdoing, embrace the consequences, and entrust ourselves to the mercy of God. We acknowledge that, both individually and collectively, human beings are “in exile,” far away from the intentions of God for his good creation.

While the solider who suffers from PTSD undoubtedly has unique, and complicated, struggles with guilt, nearly everyone, to some extent, deals with guilt, and in my observation, longs for some way to name the guilt and, ideally, experience forgiveness and re-integration into community.

Our society, and, unfortunately, our churches, often make it prohibitively difficult to acknowledge guilt. Admission of wrongdoing by public figures, whether politicians, athletes, or media personalities, often leads to public outcries, calling for “justice” in a way that seems to close off the possibility of forgiveness and restoration (The recent controversy over false and misleading statements by Brian Williams is a case in point. Interestingly, Brooks wrote a column about forgiveness in response to the Williams situation).

The Ash Wednesday liturgy provides a context for naming our own guilt in the context of a community gathered for just that purpose. The act of kneeling and receiving ashes on one’s head is deeply counter-cultural. In a society that is obsessed with “cheating death,” we acknowledge our frailty, and even, quite literally, embrace death by having a sign of death and decay rubbed on our foreheads. Then we read together the words of Psalm 51, beginning, “Have mercy on me, O God,” and later, “blot out my offenses,” for “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” David’s words, traditionally understood as his response to the public revelation of his adultery and murder, become our words as we take responsibility for our sins before God and in the presence of the gathered community.

Then, however, we move into the Litany of Penance, which is spoken in the first person plural. Rather than the “I” and “me” language of Psalm 51, the Litany uses “we” and “us.” We acknowledge the sins in which we, collectively, are complicit. We are guilty individually, and we are guilty collectively. We are finally free to admit it, and even given words to express what we know in our hearts. The Litany culminates with the scandalous assurance of pardon and forgiveness. Our God, unlike our society, “desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.”

Where, then, is justice? Fortunately, the Ash Wednesday liturgy is followed by the Eucharist, in and through which we are invited to the cross, where the perfect justice of God is absorbed by Jesus, releasing, in the words of the Prayer of Humble Access, the “abundant and great mercies” of God.

As a people, we find ourselves in, to use Brooks’ phrase, “moral exile.” Coming home from this exile requires more than therapy, but rather, again, a “moral reckoning.” Our Ash Wednesday liturgy gives space for just this kind of process. We are encouraged to name our sins and own our guilt, and we do so knowing that the men and women (and even children!) all around are engaged in the same process.

Then we name the sins with which we all are complicit—both as a church and a society (often a complicated combination of both). We are then assured of God’s desire to extend forgiveness and mercy to all who sin, and, as we take the bread and wine with ashes on our foreheads, we experience exactly what that means. On the cross God’s perfect justice and perfect mercy meet, and we realize the promise made through Isaiah, that our God will, “give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning” (Isaiah 61.3).

This radical acknowledgement of sin and guilt, as well as the scandalous sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, might be just what many in our world long for, but they simply don’t know it. It could be that inviting our friends and neighbors to come with us to have ashes rubbed on our foreheads and freely confess sin might be an incredible opportunity to share the good news that we find in Jesus. We have the courage to acknowledge that we are in moral exile, and, through the scandal of the cross, can begin to see the way home.

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