Yesterday, Durham, NC, was encrusted with a thick layer of unforgiving ice. While nowhere near as bad a situation as that of our sisters and brothers in the Northeastern United States, being unequipped to deal with such weather, Durham was not the most pleasant place to be – especially gingerly making your way down the path to the bus stop to get to class at 8:00 in the morning. As my feet almost slipped on ice every few steps, the miserable weather seemed somehow appropriate for the beginning of Lent, a season of penitence.
I did not go to school that morning expecting much. I was frustrated by the three-inch thick sheets of ice I literally pried off my car that morning, the five mph I had to drive just to get out of the parking lot, and the broken promise of cleared walkways to the bus stops. Snow was in the forecast for later that day, so I was not planning to stay for the afternoon as a precaution. It was just a matter of getting through the day.
I knew the midday Ash Wednesday service in the chapel would be the only opportunity I had to go to worship today as my church up the interstate was too snowed in to offer anything this year. Almost reluctantly, I found a seat in the chapel and looked over the order of worship. If you do not know anything about Duke Divinity School, you might know how “high church” we are, which is a nice term for can devolve into worshipful pretension (not always). I do not normally go to chapel in the Divinity School because it usually feels too forced or preachy for me.
This morning, however, it was preachy that I apparently needed.
After reading a diatribe from Isaiah where the prophet condemned the people for serving “your own interest on your fast day” (58:3, NRSV) and the discourse from Matthew on the same subject (“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” [6:1]), Chuck Campbell, one of our preaching professors, gave a heart wrenching sermon. He read the passage from Matthew again and asked, “What if we took Jesus seriously?” We all sort of laughed because it is genuinely funny that on Ash Wednesday (“when you perform the most public act of piety you will perform in your entire life”) we read Matthew saying, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.” However, Campbell pressed us, “What if we took Jesus seriously?”
The room quieted as Campbell told us as soon as we left the service to go and wipe off our ashes. The proposition was jarring at first. Why? Why remove what is most likely our own public act as Christians? Campbell continued to say that the ashed cross did not mean in Durham what it was supposed to mean. If we walked out of the Divinity School today with crosses on our foreheads, it would be a reminder to our Muslim sisters and brothers that we can worship publicly and they cannot. It would be a reminder to them that our worship is protected and our worship can proceed uninhibited or at least protected. When they saw the ash on our heads and heard the hymns chime for worship at our gargantuan chapel, they would know who had the power. They would know who was in charge. The cross on our foreheads would not be a symbol of mercy, hospitality, friendship, love, or peace. It would be a symbol of exclusion, dominance, and privilege.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others.”