Ash Wednesday

At St. Patrick’s Elementary School in Huntington, New York, the 3rd-5th grade classrooms and the nurse’s office are on the second floor. The hallway next to the nurse’s office is also home to an interesting piece of artwork. It is in imitation of a stained glass window, about five feet long and four feet high, but instead of brightly colored glass, it is a composite of various stained wood pieces. This makes for a dark, earthy mosaic. The subject matter? Our gospel reading today, the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. The bottom-right corner depicts a woman in a mismatch of disheveled garments, tears streaking her face, hands protecting her head. The top left corner features a huddle of well-dressed frowning men, a pile of untouched rocks before them. In between, kneels Jesus, face hidden, writing with a single finger in the dust. Above his head, a translucent plastic speech bubble contains the second half of John 8:7. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The mosaic sits above a stern bench on which students waiting to see the nurse sit. More than one child has been miraculously cured of her fake illness sitting under that looming scene. My third grade class soon learned that this picture came from the story of Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery. We didn’t understand what adultery was, we simply thought it was something bad that only adults did. What a strange, out-of-place work of art!

The story of Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery is itself a strange, out-of-place work of art within the Gospel of John. Nearly all biblical scholars agree that this text is a later addition to the Gospel. Jesus has just been speaking about rivers of living water, and as soon as our gospel reading ends, Jesus goes right on to his next metaphor, identifying himself as the light of the world. The Johannine Jesus doesn’t normally get his hands dirty, as he does in this text. In comparison with the Synoptic Jesus, who shows a remarkable fondness for spittle and hands-on-healing, the Johannine Jesus works signs with more sterility and symbolism. Thus, for its interruption of the theological flow, its shift in language, and its out-of-character Jesus, the conclusion is drawn that this text as an insert must be an afterthought. Why add this out-of-place work of art at all? Maybe because it is too important a story to leave out.

Even in this spiritual gospel, we find this “lost pearl of ancient tradition,” (W. Heitmuller) which reminds us that Jesus isn’t afraid to get down into the dirt and the sin of life. In this makeshift trial scene, the Pharisees could care less about the violation or the woman; they are there with an agenda, “to test Jesus, that they might have some charge to bring against him.” They have quite literally objectified her, turning her into a topic of debate, no different from the discussion of whether to pay taxes to Caesar in Matthew 22. The Pharisees have become so wrapped up in themselves and in getting what they want that they fail to notice the very human element of this story. Jesus doesn’t consider their inquiries worthy of his attention, and instead crouches down to “doodle in the dust.” Perhaps Jesus is referring the Pharisees to Jeremiah 17:13 (O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water.) or perhaps the writing on the wall in Daniel 5, but what is clear is that Jesus is referring the Pharisees “to the judgment of God, before whom all are sinners.” (Schnackenburg 166). The Pharisees don’t get it, though, and Jesus has to get explicit, saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” One by one, each walks away. Many times we focus this story on the judgment of the woman, but Jesus’s real judgment is focused on the Pharisees. They are in no place to judge one another, when they stand judged before God.

We all stand judged before God.

We all stand judged before God. This is an essential part of our Christian identity and our Lenten journey. We all have need of remembrance, remorse, repentance. Emily Dickinson, holed up in her quiet solitude, writes “Remorse is memory awake, her parties all astir, a presence of departed acts at window and at door. It’s past set down before the soul and lighted with a match, perusal to facilitate and help belief to stretch.” Ash Wednesday awakens our memory with its multi-sensory liturgical shift: the musical tone becomes more plaintive, we feel the touch of ash on our fore-heads and see everywhere we go the same sign on others. Ash Wednesday is a messy holy-day, a strange, out-of-place interjection into the early part of a new semester, when, in the middle of a fresh snow and a still-blank semester transcript, the burnt-up palms from the Passion Sunday of a year ago are placed on our foreheads with the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remembrance awakened: remorse. Remorse embodied: repentence.

What does it mean to embody remorse, to repent? This requires us to find a way to speak about that from which we repent: sin. The philosopher Paul Riceour argues in The Symbolism of Evil that we cannot grasp ideas such as love and sin without understanding the ways that people talk about these ideas, the metaphors and stories that individuals and communities use to embody these abstracts. The Bible is full of vivid imagery of sin, as we find in Psalm 51, read today. We ask for sin to be blotted out, to be washed away, to be cleansed, we ask for our hearts to be made new, to be restored, to be delivered. There is another image, another phrase, which has too often been twisted and co-opted to signify more and mean less than it should: conversion. Conversion literally means turning. The Greek we find in the New Testament also means a turning about: metanoia. But from where do we turn, and to where do we turn?

In the 31st Canto of Dante’s Inferno, we find the giant Ephialtes, who Dante tells us “rebelled against Jove.” He is chained with one arm behind, one arm in front, so that he is twisted in on himself. Isn’t that what the Pharisees have done, getting wrapped up in their own agenda? Sin is a chain in which we twist in on ourselves. What is repentence? To break those chains…to untwist and face others. Sin is an inward turning act, repentence turns the focus outward. This is why Isaiah criticizes so vehemently the false-fast…the self-interested fast. “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” What is the fast that the Lord chooses but “to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free.” Isaiah calls us to “not hide ourselves from our own kin.”

This is what we are called to do today; we stand before each other and acknowledge our sinfulness, and we ask forgiveness from God as a community. We face each other with the remembrance of sin and the hope of forgiveness upon our foreheads. What if the Pharisees had been able to stand together with this woman? What if they had been able to face her, look her in the eye, and reach out to her with love and forgiveness? God’s action is to always reach out to us, to turn towards us, and to challenge us not to turn in on ourselves again. What if the Pharisees had followed Jesus in this way? What if, instead of ignoring the woman, they had turned to her, faced her directly? So, as we discern our own Lenten practice, I ask, does our Lenten practice break us from the habits that cause me to turn in on myself, to not notice others? Maybe we’re giving up dessert, or meat, or facebook… let us make this choice in order to interrupt our self-focus, to give us clarity and open our eyes to notice others? Do we take on this Lenten practice to challenge us to reach out to others, to notice those who are in need and to help them? Maybe we have resolved to do one good thing for other
s every day, or to smile and say hi in the elevator or on the T. Do we take on this Lenten practice to stretch our belief, to This practice may make us feel strange, out-of-place, even a little too hands-on, but it is the example Jesus sets, bending down even in the tidiest of gospels, to get on his hands the dust of the earth.
As thou didst hunger, bear, and thirst, so teach us gracious Lord, to die to self, and chiefly live by thy most Holy Word. Amen.

~ Jen Quigley,
Ministry Associate for Student Affairs

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