March 7th, 2019
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” – that is what is said to a person when they receive ashes on their forehead
” In the Jewish tradition, repentance is called teshuvah (תשובה), a Hebrew word translated as “returning.” One of the Hebrew words for sin is chet, which in Hebrew means “to go astray.” Thus the idea of repentance in Jewish thought is a return to the path of righteousness.” – from “My Jewish Learning”
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. It is a profoundly Catholic sort of day. It’s a day to fast and to abstain from meat. It’s a day to walk around with ashes on your forehead. Mostly, it’s day to change.
Our church had three services yesterday. I read to the congregation from the Scriptures at the noon prayer service. I proclaimed a short passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. One portion of the reading made a deep impression on me. It was:
“For he says:
‘In an acceptable time, I heard you,
and on the day of salvation, I helped you.’
Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.”
The word “now” is very important to me. For some reason, Christians get stuck in the past or in the future. We are either gazing back at the events of two thousand years ago, or we are looking forward to the Second Coming. Ash Wednesday forces us to be right here, right now. This day forces us to examine our lives, and that is always uncomfortable. This day encourages us to repent, to change, and to do it right now.
I don’t want to change. That’s a problem.
The Jews also have a day of repentance: Yom Kippur. I have found that the Jewish notion of sin is different than that of some Christians. As mentioned in the quotation cited at the beginning of this essay, one of the Hebrew words for sin, “chet”, simply means “to go astray”. I have heard that another Jewish definition of sin is “to miss the mark”, as in archery. The implication is that the sinner is not utterly depraved, but lost and confused. That matches my life experience. I have seldom, if ever, met bad people. I have met many who are completely clueless, and I count myself in that group. I am convinced that people seldom commit destructive acts out of malice or hate. People usually hurt others because they just don’t know what the hell they are doing. They (and I) miss the mark.
These Jewish terms do not have that connotation of inherent perversity that is often found when Christians of the Cotton Mather sort talk about sin. Calvinists, and some Catholics, are convinced that we are all pond scum, and utterly unworthy of God’s grace. They think of repentance as a way to avoid God’s righteous anger. There is this notion that we can somehow beat the rap. Sometimes, when I talk to other Christians about the troubles we encounter, they shake their heads sadly, sigh, and say, “Well, it’s a fallen world.” This roughly translates to: “We’re all fucked.” That is not exactly the “Good News” that the Gospel is supposed to be.
Ash Wednesday is not a time for people to beat themselves up. It is a time for people to get their act together, at least a little bit.
Later during the service, I was one of the people, along with our priest, who distributed ashes. I had never done that before. I stood in front of a line of people, as I was holding a small bowl of ashes. Each person came up to me and patiently allowed me to smear black stuff on their faces.
I used my thumb to trace the sign of the cross on each forehead. As I did so, I said to each individual,
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
I don’t know why.