By Tracey Depasquale, Director, Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania (LAMPa)
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Psalm 51: 1-3
All advocacy must begin with confession.
It is a reminder I repeat to myself daily, if not hourly, in this work – that I am not blameless in whatever wrong I would right. The fear and violence, the racial and ethnic injustice, the economic and educational inequity, the wasting of resources, the polluting of the earth, the tendency to demonize those with whom I vehemently disagree or to interpret someone else’s actions in a less than charitable light. In failing at times to see the others all around me who are struggling mightily toward the same goals, and at other times, in failing to see the value in what I bring to the table. In all these things, I am guilty – by what I do and by what I leave undone, by what I say and by what I leave unsaid.
And then, like David, I remember I have nowhere to turn but to God, who is daily inviting me to do just that.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” Psalm 51:10-12.
That it is an appropriate way to begin the work of seeking justice and peace in a hurting world is made beautifully visible on Ash Wednesday.
Here, at the start of Lent, we give special attention not only to our mortality and our brokenness, but to God’s entry into both of those for the sake of love. The ashes of death and despair are transformed by the death and resurrection of Christ into newness of life. As Paul tells the Corinthians, this is for us right here and now.
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-19
This changes everything. Daily. Not only has God reconciled us to God’s self in Christ, but we are given the ministry of reconciliation. Freed in Christ, we are to called to participate in what God is doing in the world. To be reconciled to God is to be reconciled to one another, to become engaged in God’s ongoing activity to redeem and bless the world. Our advocacy is rooted in this.
This will be the third year that Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania has organized ashes-to-go at our state capital. It began as a way to help the Lutheran churches closest to the Capitol building offer imposition of ashes to those who serve in state government, many of whom are away from their families and faith communities on Wednesdays. Along with prayers and anointing, those who stop are given handouts with prayers and a list of opportunities for nearby mid-week Lenten observances. Ashes-to-go immediately grew into an interdenominational event.
To walk about on Ash Wednesday with the mark of the cross on our foreheads is a very public expression of our faith, our brokenness and redemption. Although I cannot see the cross on my own forehead, I cherish the scent of the oil all day as a reminder of God’s very real presence in my everyday life, constantly redeeming and healing and leading me into that same work.
It is a mark at once both confessing and professing. I have wished many times that more days could be like Ash Wednesday, particularly in our capitals. I have wished that we could meet each other confessing our brokenness, that we could breathe in the delicious scent of grace clinging to us like perfumed oil, that we might be reminded of our mortality by the ashes falling lightly on our lashes and see one another through the cross of Christ, whether we are wearing one on our forehead or not.
Of course, God is present and about the work of blessing and redeeming in all places and times. But on Ash Wednesday, it is fitting for the church to be publicly present where our elected representatives and their staffs go about the businesses of shaping not only how we will all live together in our mutual home during our mortal lives, but what we will leave behind for those to come.
And so, when a reporter asks why we provide ashes-to-go at the Capitol, the answer is not just about an act of personal piety in a public space. The answer is one of hope. In such a time of division, distrust and despair in our public life, the anointing with ashes to mark the beginning of Lent might serve as a reminder of what we have in common – our mortality, our need for repentance, and the steadfast love and abundant mercy of a God who promises newness of life that is to be shared with all people.
I never saw that newscast, but tens of thousands did. It wasn’t done for the camera, but the camera caught something beautiful, as attested to by the comments left on Facebook and email. When I went to worship that evening, several people approached me with surprise that I was on television. One friend was startled to hear my voice in her kitchen as she was preparing dinner.
She hadn’t planned to come to church, she said, but it sounded like an invitation from God. Indeed, by grace, it was, and is.