Ash Wednesday — 14 February 2018
Trinity – 12:15 PM
Joel 2:1-2,12-17 | Psalm 103:8-14 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 | Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
“Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverum revertéris.” (“Remember, humanchild, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”)
My text this noon comes not from one of the Scripture readings, but from the Liturgy itself, as we will see in just a few minutes at the Imposition of Ashes. But of course that sentence itself comes from the Scripture, from the second creation story in the Book of Genesis [3:19]. We know that story, the first part of it at least, fairly well – the eating of the fruit from the forbidden tree, and God’s response to the man and the woman – because we hear it as the first reading in our Advent and Christmas services of Lessons and Carols. But we don’t follow it through to the end, where God condemns the man to hard agricultural labor – “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – and God expels them from the Garden. And thus we are mortal. We shall die. (Just as God warned in the first place about the fruit of that tree.) But we all know that. We are mortal. (Sometimes we try to find ways to deny it, but we know it. We will die.)
(By the way, I trust that you understand that the Genesis creation stories are stories. Brilliant stories. Profound stories. But not cosmological or anthropological history. Those who insist that they are such are usually missing the point of the stories, much to God’s annoyance.)
And so we begin the Season of Lent with the Imposition of Ashes, “as a sign of our mortality and penitence.”
The thing is, isn’t this contrary to our Biblical doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul?
Well, actually, there is no Biblical doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul – at least not in the sense we are likely to mean it. The ancient Israelites, like most peoples in the ancient world, thought that the shades of the dead descended into a dark realm of gloom that they called “Sheol” or “the Pit,” but that hardly qualified as “immortality.” The best spin they could put on it was when they said of those who had died that they were “gathered to their people” or “slept with their ancestors.” Many postexilic Jews apparently gave up even on that; what we see for example in the Book of Ecclesiastes and some of the later Psalms is an admission that when we die, “that’s all she wrote.” This apparently was the attitude taken by the Sadducees at the time of Jesus. But in later Hellenistic Judaism, especially from the time of the resistance and subsequent successful insurrection against the Greek/Syrian Empire, the hope that God would vindicate and raise his faithful servants from the dead at the end of the age became widespread among the Jewish people. This was where the Pharisees were coming from.
And then of course for the first followers of Jesus, this hope became vividly explicit in the resurrection of their Lord.
But the resurrection of the dead is not the same thing, exactly, as the immortality of the soul.
[We do find in some strains of late Judaism a doctrine of immortality, for example in the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, so called, one of the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament. Wisdom was written in Greek, probably about the time of Jesus himself, probably by a Jewish author in Alexandria who was influenced by Greek philosophy, for which the immortality of the human soul was pretty much a given. (And that sneaked its way into subsequent Christian theology as well.) But even the author of Wisdom did not go all the way with the Greeks on this: for human beings, immortality is the fruit of virtue and faithfulness to the Lord, not inherent in human nature itself.]
In Christian theological terms, immortality is not a matter of nature but of grace. Our bodies and our souls are not separate things. We are psychosomatic unities. Despite the language we sometimes use, we are not a duality of mortal bodies and immortal souls. “Immortality of the soul” is not a default setting. Eternal life is a gift from God. And although we have no very good idea of exactly how this will work in the event, our faith and hope and trust is that in the end God will raise our whole selves to the fullness of God’s Kingdom.
Which brings us back to what we are about today as we begin the season of Lent. And so, if you will stand as you are able, let us continue with the service in the Prayer Book at the bottom of page 264.