Marked by Ashes
For over thirty years now, Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) has combined the best of critical scholarship with love for the local church in service to the kingdom of God. Now a professor emeritus of Old Testament studies at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, Brueggemann has authored over seventy books. Taken from his Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), pp. 27-28. we begin this lenten reflection, 'Marked by Ashes"...
Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.
This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes --
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness withsome confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you -- you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.
This past Wednesday marked the beginning of the Season of Lent. There are many practices Christians carry out during this holy season; practices such as fasting and praying that are meant to draw us closer to God as we reflect on the last days of Jesus on this earth. However, often we neglect these practices, and I think we may be particularly inclined to neglect these practices during times of stress and uncertainty like the one we have faced in the recent economic situation.
Yet, now is the time that we should be considering the Season of Lent as a period in which we reflect on the vulnerability of life, as represented in Jesus’ last days on earth. The time of Lent should be a period in which we remind ourselves that life is full of uncertainty, as well as the hope of new life God offers to us.
We sometimes shy away from talking about the uncertainty and vulnerability of life, however, for when we do we think we are being distrustful and even faithless. Yet, the reality of life is that it is full of uncertainties. Indeed, to put it simply, there is a certainty to life’s uncertainties. Problems will come upon us, whether these are caused by our own choices or the actions of others and some of these problems can challenge our faith significantly.
There are several questions I think most of us who believe in God ask whenever we face life’s difficulties.
· Where is God during uncertain times?
· How should we view life’s changes?
· What role does faith play during life’s changes?
· How do we pray through life’s uncertainties?
· How do we remain faithful during these times?
· What is God’s answer to life’s tragedies?
These are just a sampling of questions we may ask, some for which we can at least find a plausible answer, but others for which we may never find the solution. However, they are important questions for us to ask, and asking them does not make us any less faithful in our belief in God than not asking them. In fact, I would venture to say that if we reject asking these questions, as if we are too pious to do so, then we are not being true to the one who faced his own doubts and fears on the night he was arrested.
As Christians, we are particularly guilty of assuming that all things should work out for us. Moreover, when others and we encounter life’s struggles and tragedies, instead of asking and struggling with deeper theological questions with sheer honesty, we often voice standard, but hollow expressions about life and its uncertainties. We say things like, “God has everything under control,” “Everything will work out for the good,” “Jesus will take care of you,” and “God is teaching you something through this.”
These may seem to be helpful words of encouragement and advice, for they do express some level of truth and offer some hope. However, they also symbolise the wrong assumption we have that because we are Christian, things should work out for us. “Come to Jesus, and he will make your life better,” we often hear and say.
The reality is, however, that life is uncertain for all of believer; non-believer and us. Indeed, as followers of Jesus, why should we assume that our lives should be any less tragic than his own? This is certainly not to say that we should be looking for suffering, as I think some often do. But we must be reminded that Jesus, the one we follow and the one we worship, whose last days we remember during Lent, suffered real evil, real pain, and real death. This should always remind us that suffering is a part of who we are as humans, and even God cannot always relieve our suffering.
I realize that orthodox Christianity has traditionally believed in a God who can do anything; a God who is all-powerful. Nevertheless, when I reflect on the life of Jesus, I am inclined to believe that the traditional view of God does not seriously consider the vulnerability of human existence as represented in Jesus’ tragic death. While we often speak about the sovereignty of God in terms of God’s supremacy, perhaps we need to think more about God’s sovereignty in terms of God’s love; a love through which God makes it possible for God to experience our human pain.
During this particular Season of Lent, when we are constantly hearing of life’s struggles that will have an impact on all of us, and when we continue to see the suffering that happens in our world, let us be reminded that there are no simple theological answers to the problem of human pain, and providing simplistic answers is not being true to our faith. Rather, let us reflect on the suffering of Jesus as emblematic of our human struggle, as well as that event through which God has and continues to journey with us in our sufferings ...