Tis not the season to be jolly. Tis the season that we come to have the sign of the cross placed in ashes on our foreheads. Tis the season of Lent. The season where we fast and give up things we care about to remind ourselves of the trials of Christ. To remind ourselves of the trials of others. To prepare ourselves for the coming cross and the power of the resurrection that lies beyond Christ’s sacrifice.
Ash Wednesday delves into the deep Christian tradition of lament. Lament is not a popular thing to do these days. Joel Olsteen, with his upbeat and inspiring messages about what God’s plan for your life is, is far more popular today, than the prophet Joel was back in his time, with his message of fasting, weeping, and mourning, preach like that for a year and see if there is anyone left in the pews. There really are not many clues in the text about what time period Joel is writing in or exactly who Joel was. But the situation he is dealing with is a crisis. The locusts have come to devour the crops and to make things worse a drought has hit. It is sort of like the children’s book Alexander and Terrible, horrible, no good very bad day. It is like that except 1,000 times worse with locusts. There are cutting locust, swarming locust, hopping locust, and destroying locusts. It is basically the opposite of a Golden Corral. In a Golden Coral there is all you can eat and anything you want to eat. In the book of Joel the locust have eaten all you can eat and anything you would want to eat. Joel has called for a fast to beg for mercy from the Lord, to help discern the way God’s people should go in this trial. And one of the most profound instructions he gives is this, “ rend your hearts and not your garments.” In the ancient Jewish world, if you really wanted to show mourning and repentance to the world you would tear your cloak, or outer garments. Clothing was all hand made back then, and far more rare and expensive than it is now. So to tear one’s garments was a big statement since you couldn’t easily get that garment replaced. But Joel says these outward signs of repentance are no good if you are not torn up on the inside. He is asking His people to have a burden for those who are suffering from this horrible plague, for those who are displaced, for the widow, the orphan, and the refugee. And today Joel is calling us to pray for a burden. He is calling us to let our hearts be broken for what breaks the heart of Christ. He is calling us not to look away. We have been given these ashes to remind us that around the world and around the block there are those who’s lives are ashes, those who have had everything they hold dear torn apart by locust. If we want to know what ministry we are called to we must not just ask what gives us energy, what skills we have, and what makes us happy? We must ask for the Lord to give us a burden in prayer. We must ask that He rend our hearts and tear us up on the inside. We must ask that he give us the compassion of our good shepherd who saw the hurting masses and had compassion on them for they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Joel is calling us to have empathy this Ash Wednesday. And empathy and compassion are dangerous things in this world we live in.
Two people who know this lesson well are Avner Gvaryhu and Muhammed Dajani. Shankar Vedantam tells their stories on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. Avner was an Israeli soldier. He grew up in a religious family and was named after an Israeli war hero. During his service Avner was asked to execute a military maneuver known as a “straw widow”. According to Vedantim, “This involved entering a Palestinian home to use the windows on the upper floors to cover other Israeli soldiers carrying out operations on the street.” They would use these homes to watch for terrorist activities. The residents of the homes themselves were not terrorists and the military new that, that is why they broke into their homes, because they knew there would not be a great amount of risk in doing so. One night in particular sticks out in Avner’s mind. To quote Avner,
“We were supposed to take over a house, and we were walking through sort of the open space around the house. We made maybe too much noise, or maybe we stepped on a branch, and we started hearing screaming from inside the Palestinian home. So me and the officer who were leading our soldiers went up to the window where we hear the screams because, you know, we could be detected, and that’s not something we want. And we break the glass of this house, and we peer in with our rifles. We had flashlights on the barrels.
And we see on the floor of this house an older lady, an elderly lady, helpless. And she was on the floor. I don’t know what exactly happened. Maybe she heard us, and she was petrified, and she just fell off her bed. I remember looking to the other side of the room, and I could see at the end of the corridor some people or voices, and it was her family who were petrified to come and help her.
And I remember standing there and telling myself, this is not what I thought I would be doing. This is definitely not promoting the security of my country or the security of my family. And I started thinking, what about the family of this old lady? I mean, what do they think about me now?”
After his military service Avner started working with a group called Breaking the Silence, a group of military veterans who advocate for peace with Palestinians and talk openly about some of their negative experiences in the Israeli defense forces. Many accused Avner of being a traitor, of being a foreign agent. A group came out with an T.V add accusing Avner and his colleges of supporting terrorist stabbings. Avner’s work cost him. He was branded as a traitor. Avner currently lives in the United States, branded a traitor, estranged from his people.
In 1948, when Israel was formed, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes. They called it the Nakba, or the catastrophe. That is the way Muhammed Dajani thought about the formation of Israel. Muhammed was a Palestinian nationalist. And he was exiled from his home city of Jerusalem for his views. He was allowed to return to Jerusalem in 1993 because his father was sick. His father had cancer and had to receive treatment at an Isareli hospital. Muhammed saw his enemy with his own eyes care for his dying father. Another time, Muhammed’s mother suffered a heart attack while he and his brother were driving her in a car. They had no choice but to pull off the highway into an Israeli checkpoint. They were afraid because they thought they were going to get harassed by the soldier’s, as they often were. But these soldiers immediately called a doctor for them and that doctor saved Muhammed’s mother’s life.
Muhammed was changed by these experiences. He began teaching political science at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. He set up an Israeli studies program and began to teach his Palestinian students about the Holocaust, something they really had never studied before. But his students did not want to learn about Israeli’s trauma because they were consumed by their own trauma. So Muhammed decided that he would take two dozen of his students on a field trip to Europe to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland.
Muhammed received an email from the president of the University telling him that it would be a bad idea to take his students to Auschwitz and he wanted to make clear the university had nothing to do with the trip. But Muhammed was undeterred. He took his students to Auschwitz. And they were all deeply moved by the experience. Before the trip one of his students even thought that Hitler had rounded up the Jews and sent them to Palestine, not that he had exterminated them. Our trauma stops us from seeing the trauma of others. As we mourn in ashes we forget that maybe our enemies are mourning in ashes as well.
Their last day at Auschwitz, Muhammed’s secretary sent him an email. Students had come and ransacked his office, there were demonstrations on campus against him, threats had been made on his life. When he returned to campus Muhammed was forced to resign his job. One night someone set his car on fire. He knew then that he had to flee. He now lives in the United States, considered a traitor to his people, like Avner. To quote Muhammed, “What was most hurtful for me, most painful was nobody stood by me. That was really what was most painful for me. Also the fact that I have dedicated all my life for the Palestinian cause, and suddenly, I’m a traitor for that cause. So that also was painful.”
“You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
From ashes we came. And to ashes we will return. But I know there is One who can make beauty from ashes. The very same prophet who tells us to rend our hearts also promised that the Lord will pour out his Spirit upon all flesh. And that promise was fulfilled at Pentecost, when tongues of fire rested upon all those gathered there that day. What shall rise from the ashes? We will never know till we mourn with those who mourn, till we come alongside and rest in the ashes with those who mourn in ashes. The power of Pentecost begins with the mourning of lent. And we will never know the power of Pentecost until we love our enemies, till we allow ourselves to be torn up.