The word for Ash Wednesday seems to be “hide.” But is it also “seek”?
We can start with the “hide” … in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says don’t put your piety on display; that’s for the hypocrites. Don’t blow your horn about giving money; give secretly. And when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray in secret. You don’t need to heap up a bunch of words … keep it simple. Like this:
God in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
And when you fast, don’t go around looking all sad; put the good stuff in your hair and on your face, so no one knows that your belly is calling you to pray. The One who sees all you do — even what you do secretly — will know, and will give a real, true and just reward, a treasure that “neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Kind of funny that that’s the word for Ash Wednesday, when we have ashes daubed on our foreheads to remind us that we are mortal, that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. Walking around with ashes on your forehead is not exactly hiding your piety (as Debra Dean Murphy points out in her excellent essay on Religion Dispatches).
I can think of a few folks I’d just as soon were hiding their piety; Westboro Baptist comes easily to mind.
But I can also think of many folks I wish weren’t hiding their piety — or, more accurately, their faithfulness. Even more accurately, I wish these folks were not being hidden, by churches and lawmakers and a culture busily creating idols that moth and rust and we are only too happy to consume.
Women, for starters. As Valerie Saiving long ago pointed out, the sin of women is not so much pride as self-abnegation (self-making-nothing-of). It is still true in a lot of places — and especially in churches — that those who least need teachings on humility are most subject to them. This self-making-nothing-of is deeply ingrained in most Christian women. How do I know? Because I have trouble thinking of a single woman who has embraced inclusive language who is not seminary trained. (Okay, I can think of three, in the last 15 years, but I’d say they are the exceptions that prove the rule.) Because I have been in churches where having a Women’s Sunday seems like a good idea. Because after 40 years of feminist theology, feminism is still an “F” word among most lay women and how “feminism” and “theology” go together is a mystery. Because it’s notable when there are as many women on the church council as in the Sunday school classrooms.
And what happens when women do begin to move into leadership in the church? Talk turns to the “feminization of ministry,” as if that’s a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing; unless the “feminization of ministry” also leads to the disempowering and lower-paychecking of ministry.
Of course, to speak in such universalizing terms is inappropriate; as women of color pointed out, there is no monolith of women. That was one of the errors of early (white) feminism. However, to focus on particularities only reinforces the point: women of color and queer women tend to be further marginalized, except in spaces deliberately created for their inclusion (note: limited freedom in limited places is not good news).
So, yeah, I want women of color not to hide and not to be hidden, either. I have learned more from women of color thinkers and theologians than anyone else: most notably on the shortest possible list, Ada María Isasi-Díaz on solidarity; Patricia Hill Collins on the matrix of oppressions and black feminist liberative epistemology; Chela Sandoval on differential consciousness (another epistemological giant); Kwok Pui-lan on decolonizing the mind. The long list is much longer.
And I am not just talking about matters of the mind; in matters of the soul, the worship I have experienced with the greatest depth and maximum contact with Spirit have all happened in the presence of women of color. Period. Nothing to hide here … plenty to seek.
And about queer women … well, yeah. We just need to not hide or be hidden. More people need to have the experience one of my students described, of feeling confronted with the reality of getting to know me, and finding that (a) I was gay and (b) God did not seem to be convicting me about that and (c) me and Jesus seemed real tight. (This student held her first two fingers together when she said this … real tight.) There’s a long list of wise women whose lives lived and words written and songs sung could and should be enlightening the world … not being hidden. Certainly not being killed for looking or loving or being different.
Pride. Sure, it can go before a fall. It can also be a step on the road to the abundant life we are meant to live, between our rising from and falling back into the dust of which we are made.
Think about that, when the ashes are rubbed into your skin. Be glad you cannot hide. Decide, instead, to seek what it means to live marked by life and death, as do so many of the human beings around you, whose differences put them — us — at risk every day.
People of color, queer folk, trans folk — we/they don’t need one day of ashes to remember our mortality. Our mortality is before us every day that we live our full selves out loud in a society that doesn’t want us to be all of who we are.
What we do need is more people living into the questions, instead of feeling so sure they have the answers. Who made us? What are we made for? What are we making of ourselves? Who do we love, and how is our loving?