On Ash Wednesday many churches read the prophet Isaiah's dramatic rendition of what is true devotion to God -- and what isn't.
Isaiah starts with the people's satisfied cluelessness: They "seek me and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness." The people whine that God does not see their ritual piety and sacrifice. "Why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves when you do not notice?"
In their humanity the people of Israel then make the same mistake modern people of faith continue to make. We like to confuse the container with the contents; safely imitating the finger rather than the moon it points to. "The Jewish prophets had the uncanny gift to recognize when people were confusing partial and passing knowledge/information/data with eternal truth," Richard Rohr observes. We the people don't like our confusion pointed out so directly, so ancient prophets (like Jesus) were often killed; modern prophets are marginalized or branded heretics.
The people's confusion is a good example of what Rohr calls the first half of life. Traditions, rituals and doctrines provide safety and structure. I can know (and control) that I am not eating today, or wearing sackcloth and ashes. I can also know, judging from these external behaviors, who isn't in my tribe. I can do this even while I am mistreating workers or ignoring the poor, as Isaiah points out.
As the passage continues Isaiah describes God gently calling the people toward the second half of life, that place where meaning and connection trump the walls and barriers we like to erect.
The "fast" God calls for isn't merely an abstinence from food, but a felt and engaged connection with the afflicted, the marginalized, the hungry.
In other words, the fast is not to indulge the ego's need to "be seen" as upright and worthy. It is to develop the humble seeing that knows that there is no difference, no separation between me and the imprisoned, the oppressed, the hungry, homeless and naked. God calls us to loose chains, to share bread, heated homes and clothing not so we can feel good that we have done so, but to honor the holy connection God has forged between all people and, indeed, all creatures and our planet.
This is how the light of God's people shines. The trajectory of Isaiah's prophecy is worth noting: It moves from the reality of the people's false, external religion to participating in the true feast that God desires -- which is really loving others as I love myself. The arc ends with a vision much more beautiful than being "seen" by God as dutiful. The ultimate goal is to emulate God's mercy and justice in the high calling of restoring ancient ruins and restoring the very streets upon which we and all God's people live.
This Ash Wednesday it is important to receive ashes, to fast, or whatever our tradition is. But let these practices reorient you from the ritual to the romance that lies beyond as you see your connection to all people and to God's deep desire for reconciliation and forgiveness.
A good way to do this today is to sit for 20 minutes with Isaiah's text, letting the words flow over you and noticing where the Lord stirs up discomfort, anger, longing or peace. Let the story embrace you and identify where you are within it, and where you desire to be.
In what ways do I find the rituals and traditions more comforting than the risk of connection and service to others?
What practices can I begin today