Ash Wednesday Beyond The Individual

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February 10, 2016 by jmw


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a season during which disciples of Jesus reflect on our creatureliness, our finitude and mortality.  Lent, as Peter Leithart reminds us, “is a season of blood and guts and flesh.” It is a time to remember our creaturely needs and desires, as well as the importance of disciplining them for good rather than evil. For the most part, Ash Wednesday and Lent turn us inward to reflect upon our self and our relationship to God. This is a good thing.

Today, however, I found myself pondering the many other phenomena that are also created and mortal. Despite the liturgical concentration on individual foreheads, Ash Wednesday applies also to the many structures in our world that provide systemic order and meaning. St. Paul called these structures the “powers and principalities” and he believed them to be just as much a part of creation as you and me.

The problem is that the powers often present themselves as more than creation, as immortal (especially by the men and women who want them to be). For example, in their recent book, Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann and John McKnight argue that the modern corporation “aspires to be immortal. It aspires to perfection. It expects to live forever. With the corporation, the market asks us to sustain our immortality, to strive for perfection, to maintain dominance, to be in denial of our human condition.” (In another great book called Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein explores how nothing in our world today resembles the immortal deity like money: it is everywhere and nowhere, it never sleeps, it has invisible power to move and mobilize, etc.)

But the reality is that we can’t so easily mark the foreheads of social structures with ash and remind them of their mortality. And, if we could, I doubt they’d be willing anyway.

Nevertheless, the social and cultural structures of our world are “creaturely” – they are creations, not the Creator. Therefore, Ash Wednesday reminds us not only of our own mortality but the mortality of the systems and structures, the powers and principalities. The only one to whom we may ascribe immortality is the one, true and living God, the Creator.

Let us pray ash and dust upon the heads of the powers. And let us remember that the true order of all creation is under the rule of Christ who unites all things. (Eph. 1:9-10)


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