1 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
6 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?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? [Isaiah 58v1-7]
I know. We all love that passage Joel 2: “Rend your hearts and not your clothing.” It’s beautiful. I love hearing it every Ash Wednesday.
But it is so easy to hear that passage and think that God is merely calling all of us to 40 days of inward navel-gazing and self-examination, a 6-week period of giving up Diet Coke and thinking about the ways that we, as individual humans, have failed God.
This is not at all a bad idea. It is all well and good to give up chocolate, or alcohol, or anything else we are mindlessly using to fill the holes in our hearts instead of leaving those spaces empty so God may pour grace and healing into them. Lent, that time where we prepare to commemorate the day when Jesus’ death knocked a gaping hole in the universe that was healed three days later by his own empty tomb, is a beautiful time to do this. It is a time to embrace empty places.
But Isaiah 58, the alternative reading for this Ash Wednesday, reminds us that it is not just our own individual sins, our own individual vices, and our own individual deaths that we must remember, meditate on, and pray about this Lent. It is also our collective sins and vices as a society that we remember: injustice, inequality, hatred, discrimination, violence, ignorance, apathy, greed…the list goes on. It is also the Death that we are responsible for, both consciously and unconsciously, that we must remember.
This Lent, let us pause more than once and think back to when those ashes touched our foreheads on Wednesday, to the feel and sense and honesty of that finger sweeping twice across our skin, and remember all the things and places and people that have burned because we in the developed world have looked away, or worse, fed the fire.
Let us remember the ashes at the UCA, remnants of a failed attempt to destroy evidence of the massacre that happened there. Let us remember the ashes at El Mozote, left when the Atlacatl battalion torched the town after killing over 1,000 of its people.
For those of us who are Americans, let us remember whose government paid for the matches to light those fires.
Lent is indeed a time of inward-looking repentance, but let us not forget the things God asks us to collectively repent of: oppressing our workers, ignoring the poor, hungry, and homeless, and failing to dismantle the systems of injustice that keep people down, keep them enslaved to violence and war, keep them yoked.
Let us not forget the kind of fast that God requires of us: one that seeks justice, mercy, and an end to all things that bring death. Let us repent, together, of the things that truly make God angry.
Let us remember that it is not just our foreheads, but our hands, that are dirty.