New and Contrite Hearts: Ash Wednesday and Lent I

I’m of two minds about the way language of “Christian duty” is obsolete in #millennial post-Christendom. I am convinced that it’s obsolete: I just have two competing reasons why. Human life is complicated and Christendom was complicated, so I’m sure that both are right in different ways and in different circumstances. I’ll go into one of those ways today, and pick up my second thought in two weeks when I reflect on the Collect for Lent II. (I’ll interrupt this next week with an Ember Day reflection on the Ordination of Women and Ecumenical relations.)


(Source: Prayer Book Society of Canada Facebook page. Available here: https://www.facebook.com/pbscanada/photos/a.630593593648507/3268109879896852/?type=3&theater)

There was a time when the language of “Christian duty” was not obsolete, when it made sense as the guiding star of the Churches’ and of Christians’ posture in the world. It especially made sense in the pulpit, made sense to focus a preacher’s entire homiletical purpose on the obligations Christians have towards their “fellow man (sic),” made sense for him (again, sic) to centre his sermons on the summons to service, to sacrifice, the call to “mutilate the desires of the flesh” for the wider mission of “building up the body.” It made sense, because three things were widely assumed that are no longer visible.

1. It was easy to see how the “body” of the Church was coterminous with society itself, and therefore the welfare of the Church was the welfare of society. This is the very definition of “Christendom.” In North America and the UK, this Church/society was predominantly white, anglophone and male-lead: it was easier to see because we all looked alike.

2. A positive side-effect of this relative homogeneity was the keen sense that we are always in service to something or someone. The individualist focus of postmodernity had not set in yet, and so this language of Christian “duty and service” was not primarily a binary choice between service of others or service to self. It was understood as a binary choice between service to God’s mission of societal flourishing or service to forces of destruction and division, “contention and strife.”

3. That connection to God’s mission is the key. That language of “mutilate the desires of the flesh” and “building up of the body” are Scriptural. They part of God’s revelation to us, pointing to God’s work among us. God calls us to surrender our desires as part of His building of the body. In other words, there was a much stronger sense among people that Christian duty and service was purely a participation in the work of grace, and only possible as grace. The focus on grace, on God’s work that makes our work possible, was assumed: the only thing that needed to be described, fleshed out, what the specific forms our own work looked like as circumstances arose.

 (Source: Prayer Book Society of Canada Facebook page. Available here: https://www.facebook.com/pbscanada/photos/a.630593593648507/2519889594718888/?type=3&theater)

In the 21st century, these things are simply no longer the case. THANK GOD we’re no longer so white, anglophone or patriarchal, although have a heck of a lot more work to do (this will come up again in two weeks). But we’re also no-where near as Biblically, theologically or liturgically literate as most lay people were. Grace was assumed, and now it isn’t…because grace was assumed and therefore never talked about. I’m a strong believer in the paradigm that what is obvious goes unsaid and is then forgotten, which means that something that was obvious has now become forgotten. A focus on grace was forgotten not because of “rebellious lay-folk” willfully forgetting, but because clergy and others with a theological education (self-implicating here) neglected to focus on it. Solve for X.

The result has been a dramatic reversal of what I described in #2 above: people nowadays see the Church as the very force of division and contention, actively working against the welfare of society. Even worse, they’re often very right, especially when we respond to a diverse and pluralized society with fear and violence. They’re right when we thunder down “duty and service” from a pulpit without taking the time to walk with and become a part of the very people we’re preaching to, and without focusing first on the gift of God’s love that makes our loves at all possible, the self-offering of God in Christ that makes our self-offerings at all possible.

Because without grace, any talk of duty and service in our day does present a binary between service of others or service of self. But it misconstrues this as the collapse of self, the destruction of self, and therefore the “service of others” as distant and oppressive. In this light, Christian duty sounds like we’re supposed to deplete ourselves striving to attain eternal life for everyone else. If this sounds like the experience of women, minorities, LGBTQ, then it’s no wonder why folks in those communities have upheld “self” in the face of a Church and society that feels alien and uncaring: they’re just trying to survive, trying to find meaning as themselves.

So let’s step back from a focus on “Christian duty and service.” Let’s not jettison language about “mutilating the desires of the flesh” and “building up of the Body,” but truly attend to what the Spirit of God is trying to show us in Scripture. Let’s see “mutilating the desires of the flesh,” “lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness” not as a collapse and depletion of our selves, but as the Spirit’s work of removing obstacles to our true selves. Let’s see God’s “perfect remission and forgiveness” as the restoration of our selves, the fruit of “new and contrite hearts.”

And let’s get to preaching the Gospel as Good News for all people: women, minorities, LGBTQ, and straight white-skinned men like me. We are all called to live for something greater than ourselves, and young people of our time are far better at expressing this longing than we think they are. This Good News for all people–the grace of God–shows us what that “greater thing” is, and shows us to our true place within it.

At the heart and climax of Lent, we see the Great Self-Offering of God, crucified and slain for the sin of the world. But even in death, the author of life never relinquishes Himself. Instead, He fully reveals His love to us, Himself to us, and therefore makes our love possible, our self-offering possible. He remains God, and we remain ourselves. Service, duty and self-offering that depletes ourselves goes against the pattern that God has set, has already stepped outside the gift of God’s “power working within us” to heal and redeem the world. In true Christian service, the integrity of our selves, souls and bodies, joys, hopes, experiences, desires for family and intimacy must remain intact. Those new hearts that God has given us can surely carry us to that eternal Eastertide.