It seems to me that one of the things my mother always discouraged in her children when we were growing up was the temptation to feel sorry for ourselves. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” I feel I can remember her saying to us, even though I could not swear that she ever uttered these words to my brother, or sister, or me. It is the type of warning that you would only issue to a child (or an adult) about whom the tendency seemed both immanent and a little dangerous, or at least unhelpful. No one wants a pouting, sulking kid around the house, who is accomplishing nothing for anyone by feeling sorry for himself.
But, of course, anyone who’s ever tried it (as all of us have) knows that feeling sorry for yourself - since it’s deeply indulgent - somehow makes you feel better. It’s you against the world, and you are oh so right, and the world is deeply, astonishingly, cruelly wrong.
Ash Wednesday flirts with the idea of inviting us to feel sorry for ourselves. Take this smudge of ash, and account for all your sins, acknowledge your fault, own your mortality, and remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return. I can feel my lower lip pushing out a bit into a pout, just thinking about it. Left to our own devices with these thoughts, Ash Wednesday could easily become a pity party that includes the world’s smallest violin playing just for you.
But if even my mother knows what a bad idea that is, I think it is safe to say that God knows, too; and that God is not asking us to feel sorry for ourselves today. God has not called you here on Ash Wednesday in order to give you reasons to feel guilty, ashamed, rotten, or bad about yourself. And God most certainly does not want you to wallow in self-pity. There is no place in the Bible that anyone’s mother tells them to “stop feeling sorry for themselves,” but there ought to be.
After admonishing her children not to feel sorry for themselves (if she ever did), I am sure my mother would have followed up with a directive that I know she gave us all the time: “Go outside and play!” The rationale for this instruction might sometimes be appended to it with a small flourish, “… and get out of my hair!” After all, something had happened that made us want to feel sorry for ourselves. Some infraction of the rules, betrayal of trust, failure of responsibility, infringement of another’s rights or space, or act of sheer stupidity for which we been called out, caught, and possibly punished, left our lower lips adopting that well-known position, and our hearts slumping beneath a cloud of self-pity.
It would not be unusual to arrive in church on Ash Wednesday, aware of some more recent infraction of the rules, betrayal of trust, failure of responsibility, infringement of another’s rights, or act of sheer stupidity that’s weighing on your conscience. Personally, I don’t have to wait for Ash Wednesday every year for such awareness in my own life. And if God has not called us here to invite us into a self-induced pity party, than perhaps (if I may compare God to my mother, and vice versa), perhaps there is some other directive that we need to follow, akin to the instructions to “go outside and play!”
In our case today, God welcomes the admission that we have done wrong, and that we have been wrong. But I think the message of the Gospel is to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and instead to decide to do something about it. When we were children it was usually enough to simply go outside and play. This was the something we needed to so to snap out of our funk, and to mend whatever broken relationship (often with a sibling) needed repair. As adults, we may need to find more sophisticated ways to do something about the sins that we recall today. But the first thing to do is to bring them honestly and humbly before God, and attend to God’s loving response.
Sometimes forgiveness includes the injunction to stop feeling sorry for yourself, and to go outside and do something about it. Before the end of the day, when you wipe these ashes from your brow, and begin to forget about the infraction, the betrayal, the failure, the infringement, or the stupidity, will you listen carefully for God? Will you hear how much God loves you when he tells you to stop feeling sorry for yourself, and instructs you to go do something about whatever it is that weighs you down?
Nothing will please God more, than to see you and me actually do something about our sins, and to get out of his hair.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Ash Wednesday 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia