Where Is Their God?

There is a question embedded in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday.  And in a sense it is that question that will be scrawled across your foreheads in a few minutes when Mother Takacs and I inscribe a cross of ashes on your heads.  The question is an ancient one, repeated through a certain vein of the scriptures by the Psalmist and by the prophets.  And although it is an ancient question, it is also very much a question for our time.

It is a question that may occur to those who take note of the smudge of ash on your forehead as you walk by them after Mass this evening.  The question is posed smugly by all kinds of people today who think they know better.  But it is also asked by those who feel hurt, disappointed, abandoned, forgotten, or belittled by the church and its representatives.  And it is articulated by those whose impression of most religion, and certainly of the Christian church is that it is reactionary, retrograde, and willfully ignorant in the face of modern knowledge.

Tonight the question comes at the end of the cry of the prophet to “call a solemn assembly” for the purposes of penitence and contrition and reconciliation with God.  The question is this: “Where is their God?”

This is not an entirely rhetorical question, but mostly it is rhetorical if it is prompted by the sight of your little ashen cross.  Because in that context the person who reads that question written in your ashes, believes that there is no answer to the question.  And they may look at you tolerantly or sadly, as the question runs through their minds.

The Psalmist and the prophets understood that this question was one that would be asked.  It is a stand-in for all the arguments against God, and it is understood to be the miniaturized anthem of all those who do not believe in God, or believe there is no God: Where is their God?

But of course, as questions go, it is a pretty good one, and it is not a question that is only ever heard on the lips of unbelievers.  Alter it only slightly and you have a question that has nagged at believers of various degrees of difficulty, when we ask of ourselves, “Where is our God?”  For we do not always know, and we cannot always be sure, and sometimes we doubt, and we wonder, and we fret, and we rail, and we would like to know, dammit, where is our God?

I could provide a short catalog of sickness, calamity, failure, loss, jealously, insecurity, suffering, injustice, and death that might all be filed under the question, Where is our God; but you can probably pull your own files and provide your own examples of times when this question, or one of its many variants, was on your lips.  If you can’t, then read the beginning and end of the Book of Job some time, which provides the executive summary of the fullest biblical file on the question.  Where is our God?

Presumably you have come to church tonight because you believe that the answer to the question is, at least in part, to be found here.  If God is not found in church, then we are in trouble, for sure.  But I remind you that you are in a minority, even on this day when it seems so many still want to go to church.  And so your ashes are still capable of spelling out that question to anyone who happens to glance at them before you have a chance to wipe them off.

An interesting feature of the question of the night is this: it is actually part of what you might call a compound question: it is a question within a question.  And in the script for this gathering of penitence and contrition and reconciliation, that compound question has been assigned by the prophet Joel to “the priests, the ministers of the Lord,” who are instructed to stand “between the vestibule and the altar” and entreat the Lord above, the living God, on your behalf.  And the burden of our entreaty is to challenge God about his tendency to go unnoticed, unrecognized, unseen, unheard, and un-heeded.  We are to provoke God about the question that I am asserting will be written across your foreheads: Where is your God?  Why, O Lord?!  Why, if you love us, and if your are, in fact, the creator of the universe; why, if you are omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent; why if you are from everlasting to everlasting, the beginning and the end of all things; why if you are the source of all love; why if you are the prince of peace; why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God”?!?  This is the compound question the prophet has put in my mouth on your behalf tonight, and it is with seriousness that I take it up on your behalf, for I would like to know the answer.

“Spare your people, O Lord,

and do not make your heritage a mockery,

a byword among the nations.

Why should it be said among the peoples,

‘Where is their God?’”

In this text, anciently associated with Ash Wednesday, we priests are given another, additional instruction, however.  We are not instructed only to instigate the Lord with our questions, we are also told to weep.

Among all this simple word may imply, it probably includes the shedding of tears.  We are to weep for all of our sins, and because of our estrangement from God.  We are to weep for all that has been lost that God entrusted to our care.  We are to weep for the entire catalog of sickness, calamity, failure, loss, jealously, insecurity, suffering, injustice, and death that is represented here tonight and beyond.  There are plenty of tears to be shed; there is much for us to weep for.

I am put in mind of a story of a monk who for many years served as the steward of his monastery.  Not quite a Friar Tuck, he was nevertheless gregarious for a monk, and he delighted to welcome guests, to organize the kitchen and its gardens, to oversee the sheep, and the goats, and the cows that provided milk and meat.  He was the supervisor of the small brewing operation that produced beer in a dark, cool, vaulted room beneath the refectory.  He embraced the keeping of every feast with what you might call religious zeal.  But Lent was a trial for him, with its fasting, and its somberness, and its restraint, and self-denial.  Forty days of hard prayer for this monk, probably wondering the whole time, where is our God?

One year, a month before Ash Wednesday, the abbot called the monk to his study, and told him that he was sending him out into the desert, to a hermitage far away from the monastery and the rest of the monks and their guests.  The world was in great need, the abbot explained, and most of the other monks were too old and too weak to go to the hermitage to pray, but prayer, deep prayer, what was needed, prayers of penitence, contrition, and reconciliation.

The jolly monk was instructed to gather up all the intentions for prayer he could; to take a month to do this, visiting the other monks and even other monasteries, and going into towns, and soliciting the prayer intentions of anyone he could find.  And to gather up these intentions, along with those given him by the abbot, and to spend the rest of the year at the hermitage in the desert alone, praying.

Supplies of the simplest kind: bread and water and cheese, and fruit and vegetables, and very rarely some meat, and some wine, too, so he could say Mass for himself - all would be provided, and left for him regularly in a barrel beside a rock about a mile or two’s walk from the hermitage in the desert.

So the monk spent a month gathering up the prayers of everyone he could find, and he drank deeply of all that human companionship.  And he wrote down all the prayer requests, and he tied them in bundles.  And with a heavy heart the monk headed out to the desert, to his lonely hermitage, which was on a little rise among the dry, dusty landscape of the desert, surrounded by some thorny grey shrubs that were themselves depressing to the monk who looked at them and thought of the Crown of Thorns, which is not a cheery thought.

The first month passed, and it was not as bad as the monk feared it might be, and he was glad to be praying for so many people, and so much need in the world.

But as the months went on, the monk, who saw no one at all at his isolated hermitage, became lonelier and lonelier.  He continued to say his prayers.  He was provided with sufficient food and water and even books that he picked up every month at the barrel by the rock. But he was oh, so lonely.  And every day he could stand outside his little hermitage and look around in every direction and see no one and nothing, and it hurt.

Every morning he would rise early and say Mass, taking a stack of prayers that enumerated the details of the catalog of sickness, calamity, failure, loss, jealously, insecurity, suffering, injustice, and death in the world as he knew it.  Then he would extinguish the candles at the altar, step outside of his hermitage, just inside the tiny wall that enclosed a little, dry, dusty yard before the door, and there in the little dry, dusty yard, with nothing but dry, dusty desert in every direction, he would fall to his knees and weep.

At first he wept only a little, and then pulled himself together, and told himself that this would not do, that he had to be strong.  But as the days went by, he found it harder and harder to be strong, and he felt more and more alone in the world, and he wondered often, Where is our God?”  And soon the time he spent on his knees weeping in despair, in the little dry dusty yard was as long as the time he spent praying at the altar.

And one day, he realized that he had been there in the dry, dusty yard weeping on his knees for far longer than he had spent praying at the altar.  And the sun was higher in the sky than it normally was, for the morning had advanced.  And still he was weeping, and he felt the tears rolling down his cheeks, and he could remember all the prayers of the day at the altar, and he could feel his own despair and his own loneliness.  And he looked down, and he saw a puddle beginning to form just at his knees, so great was the torrent of tears that fell from his eyes. And this recognition resulted only in the deepening of his despair, and caused him to weep more, as the sun crept higher in the sky.

And you know that when you are really weeping, your eyes are often tightly closed, as were the eyes of the sweet and very sad monk as he wept and he wept and he wept… until finally the tears stopped, as the sun beat down on his head.  And he opened his eyes, and he looked down at the puddle that had formed at his knees, and from that puddle, he thought he could see tiny green shoots poking up.  He bent down to look closely, and sure enough there were little green plants poking up in the yard from the puddle of his tears.  He stood up and shouted with glee, and when he looked down again the little green shoots had buds, and those buds were beginning to open into blossoms of wildflowers.

The next day after Mass, the monk came out and he knelt and wept again, but this time in a different spot.  And as the sun came up the puddle of tears at the monk’s knees began to spring into bloom: wildflowers in purple and white and yellow blossoms.

And every day the monk would move into a new spot where he wept, and more wildflowers would grow, and the entire yard within the little wall was carpeted with color.  And this little miracle filled the monk with hope and drove away his loneliness, and sustained him through the long hot days, although the empty vista of the emptier desert never changed, and there was no rain, but he almost never wondered any more, Where is our God? as he watered his tiny wildflower garden with his tears day after day.  Until the days got shorter and the sun didn’t climb so high in the sky.  And winter came.  But the monk was sustained by the memory of the wondrous blossoms that had come from his tears in the desert.

At the end of the eleven months, a brother from the monastery came with a cart pulled by a donkey to bring the lonesome monk back to the community, to which he was overjoyed to return.  It was Shrove Tuesday when he got back, and there was beer and bacon and rejoicing that night.  But the next day was Ash Wednesday, and the monk sat silently in the dark church at Mass, and heard the reading from the prophet Joel:

“Between the vestibule and the altar

let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.

Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord,

and do not make your heritage a mockery,

a byword among the nations.

Why should it be said among the peoples,

‘Where is their God?’”


And the sweet monk fell to his knees, and he smiled.  And he wept.


“Spare your people, O Lord,

and do not make your heritage a mockery,

a byword among the nations.

Why should it be said among the peoples,

‘Where is their God?’”



Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Ash Wednesday 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 2, 2017 .