Our parish opens our daily hospitality center by first gathering staff and volunteers around a large table. We gather so people can introduce themselves, to learn names and basic information of other volunteers. We strive to build community with people who offer their presence to others in the morning. A staff member invites someone to read out loud the gospel passage for the upcoming Sunday. He invites people into silence and offers that silence in peace for the community who are still waiting outside. We offer our reflections on what we heard in the gospel. Another staff member then creates teams that will facilitate the morning of hospitality, offering food, clothing, and hygiene products and much more.
We begin every morning creating a community of nonviolence in a neighborhood that is stripped of dignity. Our neighbors struggle with the violence of poverty. We cling to the gospel message for the week that forms our volunteers in the yearlong pattern of the liturgical year. We live out hospitality of nonviolence, of welcoming people into peace and a moment of emotional security.
The language of this collect of Ash Wednesday creates conflict within me. The language of war in the collect that begins our journey of conversion does not rest easily in my heart. This violent language counters every aspect of how we live the liturgy in serving God’s people in poverty. Violence creates more division than healing, more separation than community, and more reliance on our own power than on God’s love for us.
The “campaign of Christian service” in other words, almsgiving, comes from a deep understanding that we serve God’s beloved because of our connection to other people’s human dignity. We serve not because of a battle with God. Almsgiving begins with knowing our common poverty, our common humanity, and our common need for God. We serve because Christ’s healing must rein in the violence of poverty, homelessness and mental illness.
I cringe at the language when we pray, “as we take up battle against spiritual evils.” I have learned that so often people in poverty are blamed for their situations. I hear people accuse others for their poverty. People curse people who have AIDS or who have survived storms, floods and crime. Poverty, mental illness and homeless often are seen by people as a spiritual evil, as the result of lives of sin, neglect and blame. Our common prayer at the Eucharist must not blame people for their life situations or to suggest that war, violence, battles and weapons are going to solve the issues of genuine service and offering hope for people.
The phrase, “we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint,” creates tension within me. Our conversion in the Lenten season must open our hearts to people who most need our hearts to be in love. We cannot envision our prayer, fasting and almsgiving as weapons, but instead experience them as invitations to live in Christ. We cannot substitute our deep reliance on the power of God to feed us, to love us and to call us among the poor for our own power, our weapons of self-restraint. I minister among people who strive every day to put the violence of past abuse behind them. I see the incredible effects of emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse on adults. Our prayer must become a source of healing for people. Our prayer must be centered on God who calls us beyond the human battles of hatred, neglect, abuse and poverty. People rely on our communities to invite us into peace, in the real conversion that will lead us all to the paschal mystery, of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.
On Ash Wednesday, we mark our bodies with the sign of salvation. The dust on our foreheads reminds us all that our human life will give way to the Kingdom of God. I minister among people who already believe their lives are ash. Many people in our parishes feel that they do not matter to the rest of us. I want to offer peace, not violence to a person lying in an intensive care unit of the local hospital. I want priests to bring words of consolation in prayer even as we face the cross and depths of human conversion. Our children in all of our parishes should know that even the stripping away of sin and doubt in our lives already comes from God’s love for us, not our violence against evil and our weapons against self-restraint.
We begin the Lenten journey in the peace of Christ. Even the ashes of death give way to the peace of the Kingdom of God. Christ invites people who have been beaten and bloodied by life to enter into suffering in order to discover compassion and grace. This is the Lenten moment of nonviolence I long for in every heart that prays on Ash Wednesday.