Ashes and Tears

The great English writer George Orwell is known not only for his insightful and prescient fiction writing, but also for a short, posthumously-published autobiographical account, looking backward to his boarding school days, in which he gives a detailed description of the corporal punishment he received as a school-boy.  The headmaster of the school, Orwell tells us, employed a riding crop for the purpose at first, but eventually graduated to the use of “a thin rattan cane which hurt very much more.”  A boy might find himself on the receiving end of the cane for a number of reasons.  Orwell’s first offense – as a newly arrived and homesick eight-year-old – was wetting his bed, for which the crop was applied as an antidote.

By the time he was older, Orwell reports that the device was deployed as a study-aid, as well, if it struck the headmaster that a boy was not applying himself:

“…and then,” he writes, “it would be ‘All right, then, I know what you want. You've been asking for it the whole morning. Come along, you useless little slacker. Come into the study.’ And then whack, whack, whack, and back one would come, red-wealed and smarting… to settle down to work again.

“…. It is a mistake,”  he wrote, “to think such methods do not work. They work very well for their special purpose. …. The boys themselves believed in its efficacy. There was a boy named Beacham, with no brains to speak of, but evidently in acute need of a scholarship….  He went up for a scholarship [exam] at Uppingham, came back with a consciousness of having done badly, and a day or two later received a severe beating for idleness. ‘I wish I'd had that caning before I went up for the exam,’ he said sadly….”[i]

You useless little slackers.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

I suppose few of us these days have been subjected to corporal punishment, but a day like Ash Wednesday can easily evoke a memory of it, even if the memory isn’t ours, per se.  So many impressions made by the church gave credence to the idea that Lent is a time for corporal punishment of one kind or another: that even if self-flagellation isn’t your thing, self-denial, confession, and repentance amount to rattan canes of a different color, more or less, and that although they may hurt, that is part of what makes them good for you.    You’ve been asking for it all year, and now we begin with a smudge or two of ash, and then: whack, whack, whack! – flogging you toward some righteous goal.

On the other hand, of course, is the thought that anyone who actually shows up to church for this stuff, is suffering delusionally in the same way as that boy who wished he’d had the caning before he went to his exam, on the perverse theory that it would have helped him do better.  This, many suppose, is the logic of religious thought.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return: whack, whack, whack!  Does it hurt yet? We can keep doing this until it does, and then you will finally be ready to be better.

In this manner do we make the Way of Jesus to be a path of cruel judgment and crushing guilt, in which the best thing that can happen to you is that you get walloped hard enough that by dint of your smarting backside and your guilty conscience you will be led back onto the path of righteousness.  Welcome to Lent, everybody, and welcome to the Christian life!

But does this approach really do anybody any good, and did it ever?  Listen again to George Orwell:  “Till the age of about fourteen I believed in God, and believed that the accounts given of him were true. But I was well aware that I did not love him. On the contrary, I hated him, just as I hated Jesus….  The Prayer Book told you… to love God and fear him: but how could you love someone whom you feared?”

I wonder how many of us come to church on any given day aware that we do not really love God at all, and perhaps only inches away from the admission that, in fact, we hate God, and hate Jesus, too.  For how can we love someone whom we have been told to fear, just for starters?

If I dig a little in the Oxford English Dictionary – to around the third or fourth definition of “fear” – eventually I get to “a mingled feeling of dread and reverence towards God.”  I suppose this might be the ideal state of the worshiper on Ash Wednesday: to arrive here with a mingled feeling of dread and reverence towards God.  And I suppose that by many reckonings it is my job to confirm in you both the reverence and the dread, you useless little slackers.  But I strongly suspect that by adopting this attitude I will in no way assist you in learning to love God or his Son Jesus, and I may, instead, help you to learn to hate God; since, how can you love someone whom you fear?

Jesus himself was woefully inept, by all accounts, at instilling fear in those he encountered.  Quite to the contrary, he seemed to invite taunts and teasing regularly in his ministry, as in his Passion and Dying.  And yet I suspect there are as many people out there in the streets these days who hate God, who despise Jesus, as there are who either love him or fear him.  Too many rattan canes in too many novel shapes, colors, and sizes, I suspect.  Too much of the church accusing the would-be-faithful of being useless little slackers.  And what better day to hone our skills in that regard than Ash Wednesday?

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

But the ancient words of a prophet today suggest with great specificity that my role here is not to flog you toward some righteous goal with the aid of a riding crop or a rattan cane.  The prophet suggests, rather, that I should take my place somewhere between the vestibule (there) and the altar (there), and weep.  Should I weep for myself or for you?  Is it because of your waywardness, or my inadequacies as your priest?  The prophet doesn’t say, which seems to allow for either possibility, or both.  And through my tears, I should send this prayer to God: “Spare your people, O Lord; and do not make your heritage a mockery.  Spare your people.”

The instruments of Ash Wednesday are ashes and tears.  And the aim of Ash Wednesday, like the aim of all of Lent, like the aim of all God’s intent, is love, not fear, and not hate.

Spare your people, O Lord; and do not make your heritage a mockery.  Spare your people, for we are but dust, and to dust we shall return.

From where I stand, between the vestibule and the altar, I can’t for the life of me see what good a decent caning would do any of you, or my own self, for that matter.  Nor do I hear in God’s call to repentance the justification for telling you all (or even myself) what useless little slackers you are.

I can, however, see plenty of reasons to weep.  I can see, for instance, how often pulpits have been used more effectively to cause people to hate Jesus (in teaching people to fear him) than to love him.  And that makes me want to weep.

I can see how often the prayers of the needy, the frightened, the anxious, and the wronged seem to go unanswered, and how this causes so many to lose faith in God, and that makes me want to weep too.

I can see what a mess we people – Christians and otherwise – make of so much that God has given us, and that makes me want to weep too.

And I can see my own sad faults, and sometimes some of yours, too, and that makes me want to weep too.

And what do we deserve for our sins and offenses?  A good beating?

It would, of course, be much simpler if young Beacham (the English schoolboy with no brains to speak of, but in such need of a scholarship) had been correct.  Or if the headmaster of his school had been correct, and all we really needed was a good caning to beat the idleness out of us and flog us onward toward righteousness.  What a cheap thrill it would be for me to preach to you on Ash Wednesday under such circumstances!  But God has put no crop nor cane in my hands.  He has, rather, given me ashes and tears, along with the task of reminding you that if we begin and end as dust, then we have only this time in between the dust to make the most of it.

Hate God, or love God.  Call Jesus your enemy or your friend.  God remains a mystery to us, even in loving us, so that we easily draw the wrong conclusion, what with so much cause for tears and all.  But if God is not coming for you with a crop or a cane, but rather, with ashes and tears, would that change the way you see things?

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

We have only this time between the dust, to make the most of it.  So, leave the weeping to me and to the other priests, between the vestibule and the altar.  And remember that God loved the dust he made us from before he made us, because he made the dust too, and breathed life into it in order to get you and me out of the dust.

And do not doubt that God will hear the prayer, and will answer it, and all the more so as he sees us learning to love one another. 

Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery.  Spare your people, O Lord.

For we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Ash Wednesday 2016

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia


[i] George Orwell, “Such, such were the joys,” October 1952, originally in Partisan Review

Posted on February 11, 2016 .