Homily: “On Ashes”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Ash Wednesday, 2019.

It is important to understand that the great cloud of witnesses alluded to by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is the cloud by the likes of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and all the great men and women of the Old Testament. The cloud that surrounds us in the cloud of their faith. It is the way we talk about God’s intimate presence—what’s called God’s immanence—and the response of faith to His immanent presence. It is always the recognition of God’s presence amid us that comes first, and our response second. God always acts first, His grace precedes our awareness. And what we call God’s calling to us is the very act of Him making Himself available to our awareness.

This is demonstrated unforgettably in the Book of Job, and the faith of Job is certainly a central aspect of the cloud of witnesses that surround us. In the book, Job is described as blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. Despite living such a holy life, Job loses everything through interference by Satan that is allowed by God, and furthermore is afflicted in his person by Satan. And Job in his humiliation sat among the ashes. A long series of discussions ensue between Job and friends, about God and Who God is, and how He acts. And with respect to their arguments, Job remains in the right.

And then as the friends are rendered speechless by Job’s insight and reasoning, or at least they stopped talking, out of a whirlwind appears God. And how God answers the three men and Job is truly remarkable. It is an account certainly based on God’s power, but even moreso on God’s mysterious power—God has not only laid the foundation of the earth but done so as the morning stars sang together. He not only shut in the sea with doors but gave the clouds their garment. It is He that accounts for the inexplicable instincts of animals such as the eagle, the ostrich, the deer, the mountain goat, the horse. But He also commands the morning, and causes the dawn to know its place. It is a tremendous account of God’s majesty and His mystery.

It puts the four men and Job in their place. Job’s response is “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” And all that Job lost is restored—his family, his land and animals, even more so than before. Job therefore is strengthened through it all, he is not made weak but stronger but this encounter of God. But this encounter nonetheless revealed something absolutely central to healthy faith and spiritual growth—and it is the recognition that we are creatures. It is the profound truth that we are created—it is God who hath made us and not we ourselves. God walks among us. God talks among us. God knows all our thoughts, desires, and secrets. But our relationship with God is fundamentally unequal—our creaturehood in the face of the Creator of all things visible and invisible is a truth of inexhaustible value in prayer, and it is the basis for the proper understanding of God and His divine holiness. It is the basis for peace and calm.

It is this question of who God is that is at stake in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which, in the words of one New Testament scholar, “speaks to something deep within the heart of every human.” The heart is where we encounter God and is the arena where God encounters us. It is in our heart that we do battle against temptations—for the heart is the seat of the will, the mother of our decisions and intentions. What happens inwardly in our heart in this battle between the conflicts that make up our human existence is lived out in our actions, our behavior, our words and deeds.

This is why it is often said that what we say we believe is less important than how we live our lives according to those beliefs. When Christian actions, broadly construed, are at great odds with stated beliefs, the term for that is hypocrisy. But when Christian actions are in accord with stated Christian beliefs, the term for that is holiness. But the lives of holy person and the hypocrite can look quite similar, as the that of the Pharisee and Tax Collector probably did from about fifty feet away. It is only by knowing something of their inner world of prayer, which Saint Luke gives us from the words of Our Lord Jesus, that we can discern that despite appearances, the differences between the Pharisee and the Tax Collect are great.

At root in this parable is the attitude towards God. Behind the boastful, love of self that we see in the Pharisee is a very ordinary view of God. This is a god that loves gossip, that loves bragging, that favors the elite, and favors the proud. And the teaching here is that the Pharisee is making God out to be exactly like himself: God in the image of man, and specifically, of this man. And the Pharisee is addressing God as if he and God are on the same plane, the same level—and even because the Pharisee’s words are little more that gossip, secretly the Pharisee inwardly thinks he can control God, and that is why he fasts and that is why he tithes, so that he can claim a holy specialness.

What the Tax Collector says in his prayer is equally illustrative, but notice how different it is. Not lifting his eyes to heaven, he beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” None of the comparison of himself to others, none of the idolatrous self-love, none of the celebration of self-accomplishment seen in the Pharisee. Rather, the simplicity and truth of the Tax Collector expresses humility. The words of the Tax Collector are the words of Job. Both recognize the immanent presence of God in their hearts, and both are struck nearly speechless by His presence both mysterious and tremendous—fundamentally incomprehensible. Their prayer is the prayer of creaturehood—of ultimate humility.

This is why the Church imposes ashes upon our foreheads. It is not a mark intended to evoke sorrow, to make us weak, or to focus inordinately on our mortality. Job was in ashes and he was empowered by God. The ashes are a mark of truth—that we are creatures. We are created. God’s power and majesty is inexplicable in human terms and yet this is a power we participate in by His grace, and indeed that we are to be agents of for others. Ashes are to give the same peace and calm to us that God gave to Job—a peace that settles us, a calm that pervades us, that comes through the right knowledge of who God is and who we His creatures are. And with that knowledge—with that peace and calm, and only with that peace and calm—can we rightly enter Lent, and allow the deepest truth of our creaturehood in the face of an unfathomable Creator to work on our hearts. We enter Lent much like Peter, John, and James walked down the mountain after the Transfiguration—overwhelmed in such a way that provides clarity necessary for proper repentence.