(The following are my opening reflections for my webpage on Ash Wednesday.)
In 2019 there is finally serious conversation about addressing the foreboding challenges of Climate Change. The debate has begun over the “Green New Deal.”
A dozen years ago I had an idea for a “Green” Ash Wednesday that was partly an effort to make a faith response to the issues of eco-justice, but also as a shift in piety for the practice of ashes on the forehead for Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Traditionally, we hear this somber reminder of our mortality in the frame of an often shaming focus on sin. In light of Mimetic Theory, we know that our traditional focuses on sin are usually sinful. The Sin of our origins is an Us-vs-Them structuring around what we deem sinful, which then becomes the justification for sacred violence against Them.
The crucial Girardian text on this insight is James Alison‘s The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. And the heart of that book is Alison’s masterful reading of John 9 — one of the best theological essays on any single scripture passage, in my opinion. (Note: his reading of John 9 is also expanded upon and stands alone as Chapter 1 in Faith Beyond Resentment.) Here’s a glimpse in this summary paragraph:
In this story then we watch a revolution in the understanding of sin, and a revolution that takes place around the person of Jesus, but is actually worked out in the life of someone else. The structure of the story is the same as is to be found time and time again in John: that of an expulsion, or proto-lynching, one of the many that lead up to the definitive expulsion of the crucifixion, which is also the definitive remedy for all human order based on expulsion. The revolution in the concept of sin consists in the following: at the beginning of the tale, sin was considered in terms of some sort of defect that excludes the one bearing the defect. At the end of the tale sin is considered as the act of exclusion: the real blindness is the blindness which is not only present in those who exclude, but actually grows and intensifies during the act of exclusion. (p. 121)
My “Green” Ash Wednesday seeks to hear — “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” — through Easter ears. Yes, our earthly bodies are mortal. But in the frame of the Easter promise we know that someday we will put on immortality with a resurrection body (1 Cor 15:35ff.). God is saving the whole creation from its subjectivity to decay (Rom. 8:18-25), when God’s power of life will become all-in-all (1 Cor 15:28). In this frame, remembering that we are dust can be more about our solidarity with the rest of creation. We are star dust. God’s redeeming of creation embraces our bodies and all of creation.
And as children of God, we shoulder a special responsibility — a persisting divine invitation — to participate in God’s ongoing work to bring creation to fulfillment. The New Reformation is clear about the down-side of focusing on salvation as ‘going to heaven when you die,’ which so often leads to thinking that the earth is disposable because we leave it behind at death. No! Followers of Jesus do not stand in the inheritance of Plato’s dualism of heavenly ideas over earthly substance. We stand in the inheritance of the robust creational monotheism of Jesus’ Judaism. We are dust and return to dust. But that dust was created good and will someday come to fulfilment. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3b-4). Life is the beginning and the ending, and we are called to live in the light.
So the texts I chose for “Green” Ash Wednesday are:
- Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-17 — The creation of the earth creature (adama) out of the earth, placing s/he in the garden to care for it (including the infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the symbol of our sinful focus on sin).
- Romans 8:18-25 — Subjected to the futility of decay, the whole creation eagerly longs for the revealing of the children of God, groaning for the redemption of our bodies. We hope.
- John 9:1-7 — Jesus heals a man born blind with dirt (reminiscent of Genesis 2), working God’s continuing work of creation and teaching the disciples about sin.
Here’s a narrative account of developing the idea of “Green” Ash Wednesday; and Sermon Notes for the 2019 sermon.