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Ash Wednesday

There is, among us Protestant types, a too-little-known claim found in other Christian traditions. I am not speaking of the imposition of Ashes, for which we have gathered tonight. I am speaking of the fact that for many centuries, some of the most prominent of Christian theologians asserted that the whole point of Christianity was to be happy, to be joyous, to know an abundant and full life.

Irenaeus, for example: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Or the famed Westminster Catechism, which summed up the whole duty of being human as this: “to glorify God, and enjoy God forever.”  Or St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that the goal of being human was a consummate happiness in the beatific vision of God, and that we can know truly in part this delightful happiness even now, through the practices of virtues, and especially through that of friendship.

In more contemporary language, the Catholic theologian Paul Wadell summed it up this way:  “we are made for happiness, fashioned for bliss.” And the French philosopher Etienne Gilson, says Wadell, maintained that the “purpose of Christian morality was to teach men and women how they must live if the story of their lives was to have a happy ending.” It is how to teach us how “to bring our humanity ‘to the very peak of achievement.’” (Wadell, Happiness and the Christian Moral Life, 3)  As the Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe put it: we are seeking to learn “how to be good at being human.” (ibid.)   Or as Jesus put it:  “I came that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.”

In other words, all these strands of thought weave a sort of tapestry in which we get a glimpse of Christian life as “training in happiness.”  Not merely some indulgent-pleasure sort of happiness, but a full-throttled, thick, multi-faceted happiness which takes account of the complexities of life, the brokenness of the world, and the personal and social shape of all things.  This is, of course, what some people mean by “joy,” or “flourishing.”  This is one way of summarizing the so-called good news.

But here’s the counter-intuitive bad news: we often do not want to be happy, to be joyous, to flourish. Some may object that this is patently false. Indeed, centuries of moral philosophy have been grounded on the assumption that all people want to be happy.

But to want to be happy is not the same thing as wanting to eat more sugar.  To want to be happy is not the same thing as wanting to eat more dark chocolate covered almonds with turbinado sea-salt. To want to be happy is not the same thing as wanting to buy another luxury car. Instead, to be happy, to be truly happy, often entails at least two things: 

One, that we learn to want the right things; that we learn to desire the right things in the right way.

Two, that we have enough courage to live according to the right desires. 

Note that both these things require deep change in our lives.  To be happy requires us to change a great deal about ourselves.  And sometimes it seems easier to be unhappy than it is to change. At least when I’m unhappy I know what I’ll have to complain about, the pain I’ll have to navigate, or the frustrations I’ll have to weather.  But to become happy requires facing all sorts of things about myself, and facing all sorts of things about the broken personal, familial, or social dynamics in which I find myself.  To be happy requires change.

It may be then that we fear what will make us happy, because what will make us happy will require that we re-order our lives.

I say all this on Ash Wednesday so that we will make sure to get the whole point of it right:  when we reflect upon calls to repentance, we must remember that repentance is simply a word that means to change, to turn the whole of ourselves toward true joy.  To “repent” does not mean to feel badly about oneself, or to beat oneself up. 

One may object:  does not the lectionary text from Joel insist that we repent “with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning?” (2:12-13)  Yes, but the point to it all is this:  to “rend your hearts,” to change the seat of our desires.  If one ever gets around to enough healthy introspection—of one’s own addictions, of the addictions of the larger body politic, of the bloody and hostile, warring nature of human history—one will have plenty of weeping and mourning along the way. If one in fact pays attention to the tragic plight of Syrian refugees, the systemic brokenness of the criminal justice system, and the continued rise of suicide and death by drugs and alcohol in the affluent west—if one pays attention, as the prophets would most certainly have us pay attention—then there is much over which to weep and mourn.

But ultimately, the point is not the weeping and mourning; the point is to live in such a way that a divine abundance may find its way into our own hearts, our own households, our own communities, our own social conditions.

So, Joel goes on to say:

In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
    the hills shall flow with milk,
and all the stream beds of Judah
    shall flow with water; (Joel 3:18)

So, the point of Ash Wednesday is not a form of self-hatred, but an intentional space for examining again where we go wrong, turning with courage from the habits and commitments of our lives that cause us needless grief, and turn to the ways of joy: 

trusting that God’s Spirit will sustain us,
and ultimately change us,
to desire truly what will make us —
happy.

If the point of Ash Wednesday is not self-hatred, then neither is the point of Ash Wednesday a cute and quaint religious practice, a playing about with mystical medieval rites.  It is an invitation to face the reality of our mortality, a reality which terrifies the modern world.  “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Ash Wednesday extends to you the invitation to accept that you will die, and in the big scheme of things, you, I, will actually die quite soon.  Our days are like grass; we flourish like a flower of the field, and then the wind blows and the place forgets that that flower was there—says the lectionary Psalm. 

This humbling reality, though, allows us an immense amount of freedom. It opens up a space within us to contemplate the possibility of true change:  do I really want to find myself on my death bed with the same sort of disordered desires as those I have lugged around too long?  Do I want to come to the hour of my death with a great load of pride, or greed, or lust, or anger, or gluttony, or envy, or sloth?  Do I really want to come to the hour of my death with a burden of bitterness, unhappiness, or unresolved conflict?

Or do I want to find myself at the hour of my death having loved, having known joy?  To know that I was given the privilege of change, so that I could live fully alive, and thus the glory of God? To know that I faced my mortality, and was thus able to enjoy God?  To know that I worked at the beautiful practice of friendship, and found therein a foretaste of the beatific vision? To know I had tasted and seen that we have all been made for happiness, fashioned for bliss?  To come to the end of my life happy, precisely because I had been taught by many graces and innumerable gifts, how to be good at being human?

This is the good news of Ash Wednesday.

Listen to the audio of this homily here.

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