In her book Islam, Karen Armstrong author, theologian, and former nun, gives an insightful glimpse into the history and beliefs of one of the world’s largest religions. I first read this book last summer as I was preparing for the parish pilgrimage to Turkey. Recently, I read it again as last month’s selection for the Spiritual Book Club.
I always find it fascinating to learn about the fundamentals of another faith. To better understand the how and why of a worshipping people. Do you know why Muslims pray five times a day and why they prostrate themselves with forehead to the floor? This practice was directed by Muhammad himself in the 7th century. Initially, the faithful were instructed not five but three times a day to stop whatever they were doing, turn, face Jerusalem and pray to God. Yes, Muhammad originally taught that they should face Jerusalem. It was only later that he decided the faithful should pray facing Mecca. But not only were they to pray three times a day, they were to do so on their knees. They were to bow before God, face down, heads touching the floor. How many times have we seen in news clips Muslims at worship, all in perfect lines, prostrate in prayer before God. This is a common visual for most Westerners. But did you know this was one of the most difficult of all Muhammad’s teachings to be accepted? Kneeling in submission to another is not something easily done in Middle Eastern culture. It is humiliating for a proud man to fall to his knees. Muhammad knew this. He said the Arab people were a stiff necked race and they needed to learn humility, especially before God. And so falling to the ground in prayer three times a day, bending as low as one could go, became the basic position of any faithful Muslim. In essence, Muhammad ordered practiced humility.
Well, we too are a stiff necked people. Aren’t all human beings really? We are proud, self sufficient, believing that we control of our lives. All of us could use some practiced humility. And that is what Ash Wednesday is all about. The liturgy that begins the Lenten season, Ash Wednesday is time when Christians overtly, and publicly, bring themselves before God and own up to what we are – beloved, but sinful creatures, whose lives are fleeting and whose sense of control is only an illusion.
When you come up to the altar in a few minutes and kneel down, listen carefully to what the clergy say as they mark you with the ashes left over from the burning of the Palm Sunday palms. “Remember that you are dust and dust you shall return,” they will say. These words are not only liturgically ancient but deeply true. We are formed of the earth as Genesis tells us, given life as a gift from God, and one day we will return to that earth. Modern science tells us that we are in fact star dust, made up of the same stuff that has filled the universe since the big bang. If we are more than dust it is only because God has made it so. Our beating hearts, the blood coursing through our veins, the thoughts we take so for granted, the exquisite movement of our complex limbs – we did nothing to procure these blessings and we cannot ultimately control how long we keep them. They are, pure and simple – gifts from God. And the only appropriate response we can possibly have to such gifts is to fall on our hands and knees and say thank you. Thank you God for the gift of life I take so for granted. Thank you for the grace of thought, the miracle of my body’s movements, the wonder that I am allowed to wake each morning and given the gift of another day. Thank you for these precious gifts and help me to keep always in front of me the truth of who and what I really am.
I used to have a compass that I kept in my car. As someone who is directionally challenged, I need all the help I can get. Now, many new cars come with a compass built into the dash or the rear view mirror. But when I first started carrying one the only way you mounted it in your car was with a piece of masking tape. Moreover, these old compasses were adversely affected by the magnetic fields created by the car’s interior. North outside the car was a different direction from North inside the car. As a result, these old compasses had to be recalibrated from time to time to keep them true when placed on the dashboard. In a sense you could say that Ash Wednesday and Lent are the times when Christians get recalibrated.
Today we get to reset ourselves. Today we have the opportunity to take fresh bearings and start again. Today we are asked to correctly orient our lives so that when we move forward we do so in the right direction. Otherwise, there is much too much of a chance that we will get lost. You see, the daily act of living can have the effect of anesthetizing us to the truth about our lives. We dress, we eat, we work, play, sleep, laugh and cry, and after a while we begin to fool ourselves into believing that this life is our own, that we are in control – that what we have we have gotten for ourselves by ourselves. And that is exactly when we get off track and lose our way. Because this life is not ours, it is all a gift from God.
So today we gather together to confess our sins, remember our mortality and share in the life giving body and blood of our savior Jesus Christ. Spiritually, we recenter ourselves on the rock of our salvation. And over the next forty days we walk the path of self examination using the cross as our point of reference. Aiming, always aiming for Christ, we begin the journey that will lead us first to Golgotha and then to the empty tomb.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That is the truth about your life and mine. That is the starting place for the journey of faith. We are indeed a stiff-necked people in need of a little practiced humility. Let’s begin that journey today in the most appropriate way possible – on our knees, marked with the ash of our mortality, focused on the way of the cross. Amen.