Ash Wednesday

February 21, 2007
Reading 1: 
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Reading 3: 
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Reading 4: 
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Alt Reading 1: 
Isaiah 58:1-12
By Ignacio Castuera

The beginning of Lent gives preachers the opportunity to update and upgrade the tradition of abstinence and self-denial as a way of sharing the gifts of God with those who, for whatever reasons, are deprived of the basic necessities of life.

The fasting/feasting sequences of life as reflected in the Christian Year are a good reminder of the wisdom of flowing with nature rather than adopting a naïve “oppose and conquer” model. Ash Wednesday is immediately preceded by Carnaval/Mardi Gras, the last major fling of the flesh, the conclusion of the long feasting time that began at Christmas. The Joel passage urges the reader to imitate the “bridegroom” and abandon the bed of indulgence and move into a mood of introspection and meditation.

The other three texts for the Ash Wednesday observance argue against superficial rituals and direct the faithful to turn fasting, praying and alms giving into a true sharing of the gifts of God with the poor and marginalized. It is almost as if Isaiah, Paul and Matthew preach against the Joel text and the “priestly” tradition that emphasizes “sacrifices and offerings” to the detriment of service and sharing.

There is one more text that is used during the imposition of the ashes that is not in the Lectionary, it comes from two sources, Genesis and Ecclesiastes, remember that you are dust and to the dust you shall return. Superficially this text reads like a curse, but Kohelet, the central figure in Ecclesiastes, argues that this reminder of mortality is precisely the basis for an ethic of sharing. All will die, therefore it is good that all eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of their labor.

Finally the Psalm is a great way to “wrap” the observance of Ash Wednesday in an attractive way. The psalmist acknowledges that the human condition is one where failures, sins, can surely dominate during certain points of our lives. But the closing of the text is elegiac restore unto me the joy of thy salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit…I am intentionally using the paraphrase that Jim Stratdhee has in the musical rendition of this Psalm. That, in the final event is what Ash Wednesday is all about, an acknowledgment of our mortality, our sinfulness but also the recognition that with God’s company we can be among those who can teach transgressors the ways of God, the spirit of sharing.

Marie Augusta Neal, a Roman Catholic nun, wrote in the 1970’s A Socio-Theology of Letting Go: First World Church Facing Third World Peoples and that book is even more relevant as churches in the United States try to live out their faith in the center of the Empire. In Boston, during a round table discussion of the World Council of Churches she was asked what was the equivalent of Latin American Liberation Theology for the United States and she shot back: ours must be a theology of relinquishment. Relinquishment, not mere abstinence and self-denial is what Ash Wednesday is all about.

Ignacio Castuera, a United Methodist minister, is currently serving Trinity United Methodist Church in Pomona, California, and also serves as the national chaplain for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Rev. Castuera has served churches in Mexico, Hawaii, and California. In 1980, he became the first Latino District Superintendent of the Los Angeles District of the California Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.