On Wednesday last week, many churches, principally Anglican and Roman Catholic, will have held Ash Wednesday services. The liturgy for Ash Wednesday is sombre and reflective. The message of the service is that we will all die, and the ritual marking of the foreheads of worshippers with ash is a reminder that from dust we came and to dust we shall return.
Why is it done? Death is a topic many avoid, but we shouldn’t. For us, who are heirs to the promise made through Christ, it should hold no fear. We are assured that there is nothing, not even death, which can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It has been said that death is a great teacher, that it teaches us to live. Remembering that we shall all die reminds us that our time here is limited. The lesson of that is clear. We do not have time to waste. That’s what I mean when I say death teaches us to live.
The tradition is that the book of Deuteronomy, which literally means ‘the second book of the Law’, consists of speeches delivered by Moses on the day he died. It is his last testament. To him had been given the Law. On this, his last day of earthly life, he expanded upon it, interpreted it, emphasised certain bits, explained things in more detail. He speaks of what the Law means, its purposes and how it is to be observed. The Law is not just a catalogue of things which are prohibited. It is at least as much a description of how to live. It teaches its adherent to live well.
The section we have read comes from a part which deals with how to celebrate the Feast of Weeks. This was a festival which Moses announced earlier in this collection of speeches. It was to be a celebration of the beginning of the harvest, a celebration of the gathering of the first fruits. Our reading concerns how this celebration was to be conducted.
There were to be particular words spoken and particular actions completed. The first fruits were to be put in a basket and carried to the priest in the appointed place, who would lay them on the altar. The grateful worshipper was to recite a particular litany which recalled the saving actions of God, reaching back through the story of the ancestors.
It begins: A wandering Aramean was my ancestor. This wandering Aramean is Jacob, also known as Israel. The litany recalls that he was homeless and desperate, a man unable to eat because of famine. By migrating to Egypt, God took them to where there was food. He provided for them. But there was a cost, and that was to be aliens in a foreign land. As has been the experience of so many who have left their homes for another place in order to survive, the Israelites suffered great oppressions and persecutions. But they cried to the Lord for rescue, and God heard them and brought them out of the land of their suffering. He cared for them and blessed them by settling them in a land flowing with milk and honey, a fertile place, the fruits of which they were to bring before God in thankfulness each year.
There is something tremendously powerful about ritual actions and ritual words, a power we tap into in our services, a power which infuses all authentic worship. The power of this liturgy established by Moses is that it takes the worshipper far beyond simple thankfulness for the first fruits of the annual harvest. It offers a vision of what it means to be the people of God.
It does this, first, by making, each year, a conscious identification with the ancestors, not because they were people of might and valour, but because they were powerless and helpless. Their wandering, their hunger, their afflictions and their cries are all remembered. Why? Because the only reason there can be anyone standing to give thanks is because God heard and God rescued. The faithfulness of God was made manifest in the redemption of the powerless. It happened because God did what he said he would do. He delivered Israel from the power of the Egyptians.
But that’s not the end of the matter. After giving instructions for the annual thanksgiving, Moses also instructed special giving to take place every third year. This was to be put aside for the support of those who were powerless now, as the Israelites had been powerless in Egypt. Special care was to be taken of the homeless, the widows, the orphans and those who were from foreign lands. The thankful, faithful Israelites were to respond to God’s blessing of them by being a blessing to others.
Sometimes when we read the Old Testament, the world it describes can seem so very different from our world and from our experience of life. And of course it is, but not so much in this lesson. As Moses, on the day of his death, was teaching people to live, so this passage continues to address universal themes and continues to teach us to live. This is for those who aspire to be faithful people of God. This is for those who want to live in obedience to him.
It teaches us three things. First, it instructs us to recall that our redemption is rooted in God’s faithfulness. God makes promises to his people and God keeps those promises, and his care is particularly for the homeless, the lost, the oppressed, the afflicted and the marginalised. God will find you and love you and care for you even when no one else can, not even yourself.
Second, we are to be thankful, not just for what God provides, but for his faithfulness in providing it. The things that sustain us do not come to us by accident but through the constant providence of God. God is utterly reliable, and we are to remember that.
And third, our thankfulness is most fully expressed when we share what we have been given, when we become channels by which God’s blessing flows onwards and outwards to the vulnerable and the marginalised.
Powerfully, the passage calls us to a life of imitation of God, a life living in God’s way. As God acts on behalf of the powerless, so must we; but not only that, because God acts with and through the powerless. That means that when we have power, no matter how limited, we must share it and work with those who have none. And it means that when we are powerless ourselves, we need to be ready for God to work through us. God’s work, begun among the Israelites in Egypt, and continued in the wilderness and in Canaan, continues when his people choose to be faithful to God.