Ashes, Ashes; We All Fall Down

There’s an apocryphal origin story about the children’s game “Ring Around the Rosie”. The story goes that the rhyme accompanying the game originated in the time of the great black plague epidemics which more than decimated Europe during the Middle Ages.  There are several variations of the game and the story, but one version of the last line is “Ashes, ashes; we all fall down”, which supposedly signifies death due to plague.

According to the liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time dedicated to introspection and repentance and remembrance of one’s mortality. “Dust you were, and to dust you will return”. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.  I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, so the Ash Wednesday tradition of going to church in order to be reminded of the certainty of death and the need for repentance was quite alien to me when I first experienced it at fifty-something. In the Southern Baptist church, the realities of sin and death were a requisite part of every worship service. We were  frequently reminded of the vileness of our sinful natures, often warned that we could drop dead between one heartbeat and the next, and always offered an altar call whereby we could demonstrate our repentance publicly.  In fact, as I remember it, many Baptists looked down their noses a bit at Catholics, Episcopalians, and other churches which observed Lent for limiting the practice of repentance to once a year. We didn’t “give something up for Lent”, either. If you shouldn’t be doing it, you shouldn’t be doing it all year long, and in high school I noticed that the kind of things my friends tended to abstain from during Lent tended to be high calorie foods like bread and sweets, thus doing double duty as diet aids.

Probably partially due to my particular religious background, I never have been able to meaningfully engage in the Ash Wednesday ritual, nor in popular Lenten fasting practices. I tried the ashes-on-the-forehead thing once, and it felt artificial and odd. I gave up chocolate once for Lent; not only did I feel rather duplicitous; I didn’t even lose any weight. But also partially because of my Baptist upbringing, and likely because of my own personality, and certainly because of my age, I am no stranger to introspection and awareness of my both own mortality and moral failings. I don’t need a priest to remind me that “dust I was, dust I am, and to dust I will return”. Nor do I need to be reminded of the many ways I fall short; of the things I do that I shouldn’t do, the things I don’t do that I should do; and the mistakes I am constantly making even when I try to do the right thing. I think about that kind of stuff all the time. Add spiritual angst to all the “stuff’ that is going on in the world and in my personal life, and I can become overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. Then I feel guilty for that, too.

I have found it to be more spiritually rewarding, as well as psychologically healthy, when I stop ruminating and start doing. Sometimes this means attempting  a new spiritual practice; the two I have found most helpful in the past few years are meditation and writing. Sometimes this means attempting to let mindfulness of the needs of others lead me to new kinds of service projects.  There’s an interesting passage in Isaiah which seems to indicate that God may think along the same lines.   “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed  and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD? “Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?… 

I think there’s a profound theological truth in the nursery rhyme. However you choose to look at it, we are mortal, made of ashes or dust or star-stuff, and someday we will die. “We all fall down”- we all make mistakes; no one is perfect and despite our best efforts, we err in ways that hurt ourselves and other people and the world in which we live. These are observations of reality that are true for theists and nontheists alike. The difference is for the Christian is that we understand death and failure differently. I understand death to be not an entropic dissolution into nothingness, but a transition much like birth. I understand that “missing the mark” is inevitable, but failure is not triumphant. God continues to work in us and through us error-prone human beings to effect positive change.

Ashes, ashes. We all fall down. But God is always there to pick us up.

 

Song of Solomon: The Joy of…Sex?

 

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine.

Like Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon elicits questions along the lines of “What’s this doing in the Bible?” With all its talk of climbing palm trees and milk and honey under the tongue, it presents a problem to those who equate the enjoyment of sex with sin. Often attempts are made to explain away its subject matter as allegory: it’s not really about sexual love but the love of God for his people Israel. That approach would seem to make God extremely kinky, to say the least, and I don’t agree with it. I think it is exactly what it appears to be: a celebration of sexual love which utilizes rather graphic imagery. Perhaps the Song of Songs was used as a part of a wedding-night ritual similar to the more recent tradition of Shivaree.

So why is Song of Solomon in our Bible, and what can we learn from it?   According to Genesis, after creating the world with all its variety of biological life, God pronounced it “very good”. The Hebrews understood human beings to be living souls, composed of both flesh and spirit. Dualistic philosophies which divided creation into matter (bad) and spirit (good) were not part of their theological framework. God created humans with the desire for intimate “one flesh” relationship with other human beings. While it is true that Mosaic law contained some rather strict rules about what kind of sexual relationships were permissible, the idea that sex itself is inherently “bad” or owes more to Gnosticism and related philosophies than to the Hebrew Bible. Sexuality was an integral part of the “very good” world God created and commanded to “be fruitful and multiply”

I’m glad Song of Solomon made its way into the canon, because what it says to me is that God affirms the material world He created, which happens to include sexual attraction and enjoyment. There are some theologies which see the world and everything in it as impossibly ruined and evil, fated to one day be burned up in the fires of God’s judgement. But there are other visions of the future in the Bible: Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom where swords are beaten into plowshares and everyone sits under his own vine and fig tree; Ezekiel’s vision of a river of life flowing out of the Temple and healing everything in its path; Jesus’s invitation to come to a heavenly banquet with abundant food and choice wines.

I don’t think the Bible teaches that the material world is evil.  I think it teaches that the material world disconnected from God is broken and in need of redemption. The material world, when connected to God, is very good. That’s what God intended, is working to accomplish with a little help from his human friends, and what will finally be. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

Ecclesiastes: Is That All There Is?

 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says Koholeth, the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Existential angst is not a new thing, and it is eloquently expressed by the writer of Ecclesiastes. Rabbinic tradition attributes Ecclesiastes to Solomon, which is probably why such an unorthodox if not outright agnostic book made its way into the canon. Many Biblical scholars believe it was actually written much later, perhaps sometime in the second or third centuries BC, after the fall of both Israel and Judah. Regardless of when it was written and by whom, Ecclesiastes describes the efforts of someone who had enough leisure time and resources to study and think deeply about the state of the world, only to conclude that it doesn’t make much sense.

Like the author of Job, the writer of Ecclesiastes notes that reality doesn’t corroborate the prevailing theology of an active and involved God who rewards good people and punishes bad people. He wants to believe that “God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked,  for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.” but he doesn’t see that happening in real life. He’s not sure what, if anything, happens in the afterlife. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” and  “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.”

Koholeth  apparently enjoys a long enough life and sufficient financial resources to attempt many different ways of finding meaning in life: a hedonistic lifestyle involving alcohol and sex, wealth acquisition, creative expression, scholarly pursuits, public service. He concludes that none of his efforts are especially meaningful, lasting, or worthwhile (“meaningless as chasing the wind”) Trying to make sense out of a senseless world is depressing in itself. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”  He advocates for a moderate lifestyleDo not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool— why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.”  He thinks that people should try to enjoy their work, even if it is exhausting and has no lasting value, and their relationships while they can.“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.  Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. “

So why is Ecclesiastes included in our sacred scripture, and what can we learn from Koholeth? I’ve heard many suggestions over the years. One traditional explanation is that Solomon wrote it toward the end of his life, after he had been led astray from God by his many wives and alliances with pagan kingdoms. However, that theory has never been particularly satisfying to me, especially since I agree with the evidence placing the book’s origins in the post-exilic period. Rather, I think it is exactly what it appears to be: a cry of existential angst by someone who wants to believe, but can’t.

I’m glad that there is a place for Ecclesiastes in the Bible, because it says to me that there is a place for the doubters, the questioners, and the dreamers who want the world to make sense, yet believe that it doesn’t. I know plenty of people like that today, which confirms Koholeth’s observation that  “There is nothing new under the sun.” People like that remind me of the story in the gospel of Mark where a father seeking a cure for his epileptic son, grasping at what is probably his last straw, goes to Jesus. Jesus asks the father if he believes Jesus can help, and in complete and unadorned truthfulness, the father cries out “I believe: help my unbelief!”

Ecclesiastes shows that the traditional theology of the people of God as expressed in Mosaic law has reached its limits. It doesn’t work the way it was thought to work, and Koholeth knows that. And if we’re honest, so do we. Ecclesiastes, like John the Baptist, prepares the way for the One who is to come. And that’s really good news to me.