Isaiah 58; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:206:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Saint Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic, saw an angel rushing towards her, carrying a torch and a bucket of water. “Where are you going with that torch and bucket,” she asked; “what will you do with them?”
“With the water,” the angel answered, “I will put out the fires of hell, and with the fire I will burn down the mansions of heaven; then we will see who really loves God.”
The ash on your forehead today is the reminder of that conflagration and that inundation. The angels of God rush to destroy and deconstruct all that distracts you from God. All your strategy and all your achievement end in dust. The great narrative of your life, in which you are inexhaustibly hero and victim, in which your risks cash out or in which your manipulations entangle you and bring you down, in which you covet salvation or scramble from punishment – the powers of heaven show all that to be emptiness and disintegration. The exemplary story you hope to tell yourself about your life and its vindication is the greatest burden you carry. To cremate heaven and to quench hell is to tear out its final chapter, so that you can be free of the bondage of that restless discontented resentful self. The relief of today’s ashes is their reminder of how to end your suffering. You do not suffer except in desire and grief and fear; and you only fear and grieve and desire those things that you have woven into the story you tell yourself about who you are and that you wrap around yourself to stay warm in the dark. See the grief and fear and desire as ash smeared on your flesh, then let it rinse off.
The great 8th century Muslim mystic Rabi’ah, the slave who gave herself to God, was seen by the faithful rushing along the road, fire in one hand and water in the other. “Where are you going with that torch and that bucket,” they called out, “and what will you do with them?”
“With the water,” Rabi’ah answered, “I will douse hell; with the fire, I will incinerate the gardens of paradise, so that both veils might be lifted from those on the quest, making them sincere of purpose. God’s servants will then learn to see him without hope of reward or fear of punishment.”
You see, the person in the story dissolves; what matters is only the radical call to the love of God. Our hard-wired impulse to locate our self in a story is invincible, but unstable and evanescent. The facts shift and morph around us, falling into the patterns determined by our deep querulousness or bitterness or gratitude or ignorance, will you or no will you. So great is our determination to inhabit a story that we think of salvation as the projecting of our self into a narrative in which God is principal actor. But, dear friends, do not think to escape suffering that way, for anything, from impersonal tsunamis to personal disappointments, will call the presumed author into question and leave you writhing on your bed in doubt and torment.
What else could be the deep meaning of our Lord’s insistence that when we give alms, our right hand is not to know what our left hand does, and that when we fast, we are to anoint ourselves, and that all this is to be done in secret? The story of your virtue cannot be told. Understand: the virtue is not the danger, but the story; and, to tell the truth, the story is not the danger, but the deep spiritual terror that narrates your self to your self, that drives each one of us to attempt to secure our self against reality.
The good deed done in secret, which is the only virtuous act our Lord commends to us, is the deed that we cannot account for, the kindness done unnoticed and unappreciated, the patience that long ago gave up on comprehension, doing our best when all others have abandoned the project, finishing the race when the judges have already gone home. Our heavenly Father, Jesus says, sees into that action that is so secret that we ourselves see only our faithfulness to the act and no longer see its moment in the story. In fact, one crucial way to renounce our lust for meaning is to give up even the pretentious calibrations of moral cause and effect.
Be careful, sisters and brothers. If you say the act has no meaning, you consign yourself to hell. If you fail to do the act at all, you will be consigned to hell. You must act and then say that the meaning of the act is the secret into which our heavenly Father can see, but into which human beings have neither insight nor comprehension. A reward is promised when we can arrive at that detachment from the fruits of our action.
This precisely is what Isaiah calls us to. He denounces fasting for results; he condemns the assumption that our behavior summons responses of attention and compensation from God. Truly, on the day of that fast, we seek our own pleasure – even if it is of the most subtle and spiritual kind.
Instead, Isaiah, on God’s behalf, insists that the fast God has chosen for us is to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the yoke, to share bread with the hungry, to cover the naked. There is nothing here about their worthiness, no acknowledgement of their story, of how they fell into slavery or starvation or destitution – dare I say that is the secret into which God sees. Neither their story nor ours is relevant before the unalterable fact of their hunger. Neither their story nor ours deflects the question: did you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted? Our endless explanations cannot alter whether or not we hid our self from our own flesh, because to turn from the poor, to turn from the suffering, to turn from those in need, is to turn our back on our self, not in any mystical sense, but in the hardening of our heart that is the inexorable and cumulative result of every time we have preferred not to see and chosen not to know.
The journey we begin today, you see, is towards crucifixion. At the heart of the great mystery of our faith—the presence of God in the person of Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to God—is this moment of narrative collapse. Jesus had gathered around himself a community of religious reform and radical relationship, earning without desire homage that he was the Anointed One. To the extent that he or others embraced that title, the defeat of the cross was excruciating. To the extent that we cling to fears of punishment and hopes of reward, to the triumphant or victimized account of our life, our own crucifixion, the collapse of our story, is excruciating.
But for Christians, the cross is a portal, and the true dissolution of what is brought to it and nailed to it is transcended by Easter. The defeat of all we had hoped to achieve or escape is worn lightly and publicly when we are returned to life. We are handed over by life to carry our own cross daily—again, remembered in the cross of ash on your forehead—and our cross is nothing more than the rents in the fabric of our life that mark the entry points of new life. This new life is no more confined by the incidental story through which it flows than the light that, ever present, pervades the universe without partiality. As Paul says, the life into which crucifixion and resurrection releases us is fully present, without discrimination, in the calamities and the kindnesses, or in the honors and the dishonors, with which we fabricate our story. In the power of the Resurrection, New Life rises from the ashes of what we might have preferred and what has tormented us, from all our account of our self, ground into dust and smeared for a moment on our flesh. In the power of the Resurrection, we seem to die, and yet live; we seem to grieve, yet always rejoice; we seem poor, yet make many rich; we seem to have nothing, and yet possess all things.
All this is no more than the dust the solar wind blows through the cosmos, and which for a moment, rests on our forehead today, paradoxically the means by which light is reflected and therefore seen for a moment – nothing more. But remember that what is reflected, and what we are to imitate, is the impartial generosity of the light, that floods everywhere, that energizes all things, that provides vivifying power to the dust, and into which we hope to enter to live a life of unobstructed praise of the One God, who is Eternal Source, Only-begotten Word, and Life-giving Spirit, and whom we praise this day.