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Ash Wednesday

February 14, 2023

Today’s Invitation

Today we invite you to explore Ash Wednesday through either the retributive or the restorative God; engage Catholic teaching on queer people through the Vatican document that discusses “blessing same-sex couples”; and embody a more liberative Lent through a contemplative exercise and the example of Pauli Murray.

Commentary by Ezra Doyle

Ash Wednesday

Reading 1

Joel 2:12-18

Even now — it is YHWH who speaks —
return to me with your whole heart,
fasting, weeping, mourning.
Rend your hearts, not your garments.
Return to YHWH, your God,
who is gracious and merciful,
and ready to forgive.
Who knows ? YHWH may come back, relent,
and leave a blessing behind —
grain and drink offerings
for YHWH, your God.
Blow the trumpet in Zion!
Proclaim a fast,
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people,
summon the community;
assemble the elders,
and gather the children, even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his bedroom
and the bride her canopied bed.
Let the priests, YHWH’s ministers,
stand weeping between the portico and the altar.
and say, “Spare Your people, YHWH!
Do not make your heritage a thing of shame,
a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the nations,
‘Where is their God?’ ”
Then YHWH will be stirred on behalf of the land,
and will take pity on the people.

Responsorial Psalm

Psalm 51

Response: Have mercy, O God, in Your goodness.

Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness, / in Your great tenderness wipe away my faults;
Wash me clean of my guilt, / purify me from my sin.
R: Have mercy, O God, in Your goodness.

For I am well aware of my faults, / I have my sin constantly in mind,
Having sinned against none other than You, / having done what You regard as wrong.
R: Have mercy, O God, in Your goodness.

God, create a clean heart in me, / put into me a new and constant spirit,.
Do not banish me from Your presence, / do not deprive me of Your Holy Spirit.
R: Have mercy, O God, in Your goodness.

Be my savior again, renew my joy, / keep my spirit steady and willing;
Open my lips, / and my mouth will speak out Your praise.
R: Have mercy, O God, in Your goodness.

Reading 2

2 Corinthians 5:20 — 6:2

We are Christ’s ambassadors,
as though God were making the appeal directly through us.
Therefore we implore you in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God.
For our sake, God made the One who was without sin to be sin,
so that by this means we might become the very holiness of God.

As Christ’s co-workers we beg you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For God says through Isaiah,
“At the acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.”
Now is the acceptable time!
Now is the day of salvation!


Matthew 6:1-6,16-18

Jesus said to the disciples,
“Beware of practicing your piety before others to attract their attention;
if you do this, you will have no reward from your Abba God in heaven.
“When you do acts of charity, for example,
do not have it trumpeted before you;
that is what hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets,
that they may be praised by others.
The truth is, they have already received their reward in full.
But when you do acts of charity,
do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing;
your good deeds must be in secret,
and your Abba God — who sees all that is done in secret —  will repay you.

“And when you pray, do not behave like the hypocrites;
they love to pray standing up in the synagogues
and on street corners for people to see them.
The truth is, they have received their reward in full.
But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door,
and pray to God who is in that secret place,
and your Abba God — who sees all that is done in secret — will reward you.

“And when you fast, do not look depressed like the hypocrites.
They deliberately neglect their appearance
to let everyone know that they are fasting.
The truth is, they have already received their reward.
But when you fast, brush your hair and wash your face.
Do not let anyone know you are fasting except your Abba God,
who sees all that is done in secret.
And Abba God — who sees all that is done in secret — will reward you.”

The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved. 

The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.



A Restorative Image of God

Ash Wednesday is a fascinating phenomenon. In fact, I find it so interesting that I consider it one of my absolute favorite days of the year. I would dare say that most of us raised in the Catholic system have some deep attachment to the day. But that’s really quite strange when you think about it! Why is it that people go out of their way to attend religious services in such high quantities on this particular day? Even with the seemingly morbid overtones? Three (maybe two- and-a-half, rather) thoughts come to me immediately. 

One explanation we could call “tribalism.” You show up on this day, you receive this mark on your forehead, then you’re clearly branded as a member of a group. With this, you can identify “your own.” There’s obvious reasons this can be dangerous, but in some way, we all seek to be a part of something. To belong. The risk is, of course, that then we have an “us” and a “them.” We all know this was not the way Jesus lived his own life, and we must be conscious to avoid this creeping into our mind. Religion can be a wall, but Jesus chooses instead to call it a gate (John 10:9). On this front, I think the progressives among us feel a bit awkward about the ritual. I know that I personally question that, should I go in public with this smudge on my face (and trust me, I don’t have a great hairline to help hide anything!) I may be categorized in a way I don’t wish to be. In this I mean, our cultural concept and experience of Christianity is generally not positive. Our religion has hurt people. And it continues to. So when they see ashes what does one see? Do they assume right-wing politics? Maybe that you’ve got some outdated thoughts on sex? Or that you don’t believe in full women’s equality? Of course we must challenge the narrative, but we must also challenge the system which allowed Christianity to become conflated with such nasty things. 

Option two is what I suspect is the normal motive for an average attendee, which is that people are, genuinely and generally, quite spiritually inclined. This holiday provides an opportunity to reflect upon our human condition and ponder our very existence. It’s sentimental to many of us and many assume that attendance is obligatory. In this way it’s a yearly “check in!” A reevaluation of core convictions. My hope though, is that we have the honesty to allow for healing and change. And with this, there is an option for a nuanced third option.

Lent falls in a beautiful time where change fills the world around us. Days get longer, flowers start to bloom, and seasonal depression dissipates. We have a renewed sense that there is beauty in the world when Spring comes. We see the chance to grow. To be human is to change, and it’s my assumption that we each have ways in which we would like to improve. Ash Wednesday gives us the opportunity, the commission, and (hopefully) the excitement to become better people! How can we contribute to creating a more loving world? Who in our lives has some area of need that we may help with? What systems of oppression need to be addressed? In our desire to live more peace-filled lives, we need (on a psychological level) moments/rituals that remind us of our potential. Today can hold that potential. 

It is important though that we consider our theology as we look at this holiday this way. We can have a retributive view of God, or a restorative one. One who is punitive, or one who wants our wellbeing. Keep calling yourself a “miserable sinner” and you will, in fact, find yourself to be miserable. Acknowledge the radical potential in each person and their inherent loveability, and, well, misery will not be for you. We can harm one another or we can heal. The choice is ours. We must acknowledge our failures, but we must not let them destroy our lives.  

May this season be kind to you, and may we do the same in return. 

Commentary by Ezra Doyle

Ezra Doyle is a spiritual theologian fascinated by universal religious themes as found in various world traditions. He has an affinity for vegan cooking, the Book of Common Prayer, and calling people the title “friend.”

Engage Catholic Social Teaching

LGBTQ+ Justice

Maybe late to the conversation, but let’s talk about Fiducia supplicans (2023) for a bit. For those unfamiliar with the formal Latin title, this is the document that the Vatican released in December that continued the conversation on blessings for same-sex couples. “On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessing” is the subtitle, and as it suggests, it takes a look at what a “blessing” is, what they “do” and what is their role in the Chrisitan life. Its main concern is not about pastoral care for LGBTQ individuals, but this is touched on still. When released, secular media claimed this as the Catholic Church embracing its LGBTQ members after centuries of active neglect. Then there were the traditionalists who accused the pope of heresy and “spiritually abusing” his office and proceeded to have a temper tantrum in the public forum. 

I am an openly gay man. I do not conceal this even though I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by religion. The day this document came out, I remember being at work and having multiple visitors stop by my office to speak about it. What I found bizarre was that as it came up in conversations in the coming days I kept hearing a phrase I didn’t expect: “Congratulations!” Congratulations?! What are you congratulating me for? Did this give me, or any of my siblings, anything substantive? 

Queer people are continually told that they must “be patient with the Church!” and that “this is a huge step in your direction!” This comes from those who are more sympathetic to queer issues of course. Then there’s the opposite experience, those aligned with the conservatives who see this as the collapse of Catholicism. In each situation, queer people are simply an object of deliberation. Explicitly: an issue to be dealt with. This does not produce healthy individuals when this is internalized. Not to mention, it seems ill-fitting to dictate what should be making others feel as though they belong. To offer crumbs and expect eternal gratitude!

But let’s talk about blessings. In the document, it calls for clergy to be quick to offer prayer with anyone requesting. This spiritual accompaniment is given the title of “a blessing” and is very clear that this is something different from sacramental marriage. Establishing this, it concedes that same-sex couples may have occasions when they may find assistance through some act of prayer, this is all the document gives permission for. It proceeds to say how individuals in “prisons and rehabilitation facilities” may benefit from the same approach…

Full honesty, I do not expect the Roman Catholic Church to change its stance on marriage. Ever.  Likewise, I cannot spend any more of my time asking them to. I’m not sure what I am actually advocating here even, but maybe, for whatever it’s worth, we take seriously the values of inherent human dignity and the right to self determination.

And I hope all my fellow partnered same-sex couples really enjoy Valentine’s Day this year. You deserve it. 


A Contemplative Exercise

For Lent this year I would like to invite you to honestly consider what we can change in our lives to become better (and happier) people as we discussed earlier. This means taking a deep look within ourselves and asking honestly “What is working?” and “What needs to go?” I’ve noticed the trend in recent years of not “giving up” things for Lent but instead doing something proactive. This can be good (if the activity is ordered towards good) but there are also times when we need to omit certain habits so that we can actually grow.

Maybe we struggle with continually putting ourselves down? Beating ourselves up constantly leads to awful self image and this is seen by those around us, often chasing them away. Maybe we are hypercritical as our de-facto way of communicating? Trust me, we will get through this without an opinion on everything! I’ve noticed many men recently simply start talking while women are speaking as if they’re entitled to the “air time.” Yup, that’s gotta go too! Poor relationship to certain substances? Look into that!

But should you want to add a practice, my suggestion is simply to keep your eyes open in this coming season. Like literally keep your eyes open. As in, allow yourself to be moved by the warming temperatures and emerging sights and sounds. Allow yourself the space to simply find things neat! You were already reminded of your mortality today, don’t rush back to the dust before you have to.

A Witness

Pauli Murray

There are many things to be said of someone as impressive as Pauli Murray, and I am not the one to write that story. What is important though, is that we know who she is. A civil rights activist, author, queer advocate, legal scholar, theorist, and even, a priest (among the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church even!) There are many such witnesses saying that religious conviction must imply social concern, but as we mentioned earlier, this is not the normative experience of Christianity in America today. While there are numerous progressives doing wonderful work, their voices are drowned out by a version of the gospel with an oddly (conservative) American bent. I assume Pauli would laugh at this and insist that the only sincere option is to keep believing that change is possible, worthwhile, and our innate call. 

I suggest looking into her story, we might learn something to better solve our current societal issues!

As we head off into this season, here’s a poem by Pauli that we might sit with:

We are spendthrifts with words,
We squander them,
Toss them like pennies in the air–
Arrogant words,
Angry words,
Cruel words,
Comradely words,
Shy words tiptoeing from mouth to ear.

But the slowly wrought words of love
and the thunderous words of heartbreak–
Those we hoard.