Isaiah’s Call

On Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras, in anticipation of Ash Wednesday, a personal reflection, based on Isaiah 58.1-12.

The placing of ashes on the forehead in the sign of a cross is a physical mark of obedience to a tradition harkening back to biblical times and earliest church history and of repentance, turning away from a self-interested path toward the self-sacrificial way of Jesus and of awareness that life in this world is a transient, terminal condition.

Obedience. Repentance. Transience.

In preparing for Ash Wednesday, I reflect on the words of Isaiah. The prophet proclaims that outward action is not as important as inward purpose. And for Isaiah, there is one purpose: To do God’s will, summarized in the phrase “to break the bonds of injustice,” immediately elaborated by the wording “to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke.”

The Litany of Penitence, recited on Ash Wednesday, confessionally, nakedly lists a series of common human injustices. Principally, the failure to love God and our neighbors, from which springs unforgiveness, resistance to sacrificial service, pride, hypocrisy, impatience, self-indulgence, exploitation of others, anger, envy, intemperate love of worldly things, and negligence in prayer and worship.[1]

For my sinfulness, I do not, I cannot live through a moment, much less the whole of any given day without committing, in thought, word, or deed, one or more of these injustices. And though I speak for myself, I don’t believe I’m alone.

Isaiah’s words are ancient. However, contemporary is their indictment of humanity’s timeless and universal predisposition, rooted in our individual preferences and prejudices, not to break the bonds of injustice, not to undo the thongs of the yoke, not to free the oppressed, not to break every yoke.

As I prepare for Ash Wednesday, reflecting on Isaiah’s call, I, in obedient repentance (and in repentant obedience) ask myself: What bonds of injustice will I break? What thongs of what yokes will I undo? Who are the oppressed that I will free? What yokes will I break?

And not only in this coming season of Lent, but, given my transient nature, as long as my life lasts.

© 2021 PRA

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, pages 267-269

2 thoughts on “Isaiah’s Call

  1. Paul,

    Thank you for this pre-Ash Wednesday meditation and your reflection on Isaiah’s interpretation of human purpose, what it means to do God’s will. There’s not much there to disagree with, I find. Obedience, repentance, transience: two commands and an expression of the undisputed human condition. Greater awareness of the third perhaps makes us more willing and determined to seek our own compliance with the two commands as we grow older. At least I think that’s the case with me. The imperative to leave the earth better than I found it rings in my ears and my heart ever more urgently now in these days of aging, of pandemic, of political ironies and travesties, of serious public suggestion by a cohort of our countrymen that injustice not only be ignored but that it be elevated in its particulars to the position of accepted policy and practice in the U.S. I could have hardly imagined such before this time in which we are living.

    Breaking the bonds of injustice: what can be more necessary, more central to obedience and repentance than the seeking of justice (including dignity, respect, self-determination, self-regard, equal rights, and freedom from imposed suffering) for all God’s children, for the sacred Earth, and for everything it contains?

    My Ash Wednesday practice always includes reading and spending time with T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” Its language, cadences, and repetitions, but most of all its questions, have mystified, comforted, and called to me since high school days, and still does. I am glad to have your thoughts on the day from Isaiah’s and your own perspective to ponder alongside my reading and study.

    I imagine there will be few ashes imposed on foreheads tomorrow, at least in visible form. But we know – perhaps better this year than in most other years of our lives – they are there. We may understand better this year what they mean and how they mark us, convict us, and perhaps, if we’re fortunate, patient, and insightful, also bless us.

    May tomorrow be a day of rich reflection and insight for you, Paul. You have helped to create the conditions for that to happen here in Minnesota for me. For that, as always, my dear friend, I thank you.

    Much love,

    Karen

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    1. Ah, my dear Karen, again and again and again you ponder purposefully with provocative prose: “…I imagine there will be few ashes imposed on foreheads tomorrow, at least in visible form. But we know – perhaps better this year than in most other years of our lives – they are there. We may understand better this year what they mean and how they mark us, convict us, and perhaps, if we’re fortunate, patient, and insightful, also bless us…” Amen to this!

      Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” is one of my most favorite poems. I, too, find fulfillment in the bard’s phrasing and, yes, his questions as he tracks and shares his movement from skepticism, indeed, as I read and interpret him, an honest faithlessness, a spiritual barren wasteland toward an apprehension, aye, a union with a God of his understanding:

      “…Because I cannot hope to turn again
      Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
      Upon which to rejoice
      And pray to God to have mercy on us…”

      And, my dear sister, as for blessing, you in your reading, reflecting, and responding have blessed me. And I am most grateful.

      Love,
      Paul

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