A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
March 7, 2019
I was raised in a church that defined itself in part by being ABC – “anything but Catholic.” We held that the Bible alone ruled our faith and life. We didn’t need any props to help us, such as rosaries, statues, and meatless Fridays. Observance of Lent was, for us, a lame Catholic tradition that distracted us from true repentance, which should take place all year long, not just for forty days. Perhaps one of the worst offenses against true faith, some in our church might have argued, would be the infiltration of “Ash Wednesday” into our life. We knew full well – or so we thought – that Ash Wednesday, with all its pious penitence marked by blackened foreheads, was simply an external observance that only distracted from issues of the heart.
Martin Luther and John Calvin both sought to strip the church of superstitious practices that prevailed around them. But they went about that reform work quite differently. Luther sought to remove from church all things that were explicitly forbidden by Scripture, such as the veneration of relics and sale of indulgences. Calvin went deeper, retaining only that which Scripture explicitly mandates. The difference is significant. It led Calvin and his followers to strip musical instruments from churches, because there is no record of musical instruments being used in New Testament worship. Luther, on the other hand, celebrated the use of all kinds of instruments in church, paving the way for the emergence of arguably the greatest Christian musician ever, J. S. Bach. Had Bach not earned his livelihood as a church musician, his genius would likely have taken a very different pathway; as it is, Bach’s repertoire is thoroughly immersed in the worlds of Scripture and church.
Yet even Calvin thought that “things” can aid our faith. He taught that this is why God gives us, in addition to the words of scripture, tangible elements to assist us in our slowness to grasp God’s lavish spiritual gifts. We may wonder abstractly whether Christ truly dwells within us, so God gives us gifts of bread and wine that are irrefutably tangible to bear witness to what God has given us spiritually in Christ. Just as surely as the bread and wine have entered us physically, we can trust that Christ is present in us spiritually. We may wonder whether God has really washed away our inner sin, invisible as it is, so God gives us the water of baptism to assure us that just as surely as we got wet externally, we have been cleansed inwardly.
By themselves, these things are merely things. But as signs that point to the work of God, they lead us by faith to the reality of things unseen.
Scripture repeatedly pictures the penitent using ashes to make concrete their repentance from sin. Even wicked Nineveh was saved when its citizens humbled themselves in sackcloth and ashes. (Jonah 3:4-10) Ashes mean nothing by themselves, but they can be powerful signs of a spiritual reality.
The first couple of times I attended Ash Wednesday services, I declined to receive the imposition of ashes. I didn’t want to parade my repentance, or so I said. It was probably more that I didn’t want to be aligned with a form of spiritual exercise that was so tangible, earthy, and even dirty.
On Ash Wednesday 2018 the world was transfixed to broadcast images of families in Parkland Florida, as they frantically sought to find and comfort their children following one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Several of the parents in those images bore on their foreheads the ashen mark of the cross they had received earlier that Ash Wednesday. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Our mortality was brutally evident. Yet the ashes represent more than mere mortality. They also signify our sure hope that as we acknowledge our sin, pardon and new life await us.
Jesus sometimes used mere “things” to help him accomplish his mission. Saliva. (Mark 8:22-26) Mud. (John 9:1-7) Clothing. (Matthew 9:20-22) Basin and towel. (John 13:1-11)
Wine. Bread. Water. Ashes. Things we give up or practices we take on for Lent.
They may be most ordinary things, so what you see is all you get. Or they can be most holy if we embrace them as outward signs of our inward faith in the One we serve. As expressions of heartfelt desire for and commitment to our Lord and his service, they can be like “booster rockets” to take our spiritual journey to higher planes than we would otherwise know. May that prove true for us especially in this season of Lent.
Your partner in the Lenten journey,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister