Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-19 / Matthew 6:16-21

My Oberon! what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamour'd of an ass.
There lies your love.
                               How came these things to pass?
O, how mine eyes do loathe his visage now.

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer's Night Dream IV.i.76-79

In Shakespeare's play A Midsummer's Night Dream, the haughty and proud Titania, Queen of the Fairies, is humbled through the craft and plan of her husband, the Fairy King Oberon, and his loyal sprite, the mischievous Puck. Bewitched by a magical potion placed upon her eyes, Oberon curses Titania to fall in love with the first vile thing she sees upon waking. Puck, meanwhile, has taken the somewhat likable but largely blustering and incompetent ass of a man, Nick Bottom the Weaver, and having transformed his head to that of a literal ass, sets him where Titania will not fail to gaze upon him, and in her gazing, fall hopelessly in love. Despite the fact that Bottom, his personality altogether unchanged as a result of his new appearance, is now manifestly, in visage as much as in behavior, an ass, Titania receives him into her all too wanton embrace. What any and all could see, she, blinded because of her pride and now made sport of in her folly, found herself adoring rather than spurning. It is only when, restored to her true sight, that she is humbled, humiliated even by her amorous dalliance with an ass of a man, and returns to Oberon, her spouse, king, and lord.

While there are perhaps difficult moral and spiritual issues that confuse us, that perplex our best efforts to understand, in truth we all too often play the role of Titania. We may happily confess that we are "sinners" or "hardly virtuous," but these claims mask a more basic pride. We imagine that we are, basically and fundamentally, on the right track, and that apart from a minor embarrassment from an indiscretion here or there, we would have nothing (or little) to fear from having our lives and loves made known to the world. In truth, however, we resemble Titania fawning over what is vile, ordering her handmaids to festoon with garlands what is better shunned and sent away, inviting into our most intimate embrace what is unworthy of our dignity and contrary to our good. What is worse, we do this all not because the evil we embrace is subtle and crafty, but because in our arrogance we do not see what is plain to the world.

At the beginning of Lent, the Church calls upon us to be humbled, to receive upon our heads the ashes of repentance. We are asked to be marked out not as proud, capable, and virtuous, at worst the perpetrators of an occasional venial sin. Rather, we become public penitents, those who, in their humility, think less of their station and worth, less of how other might esteem their virtue, and more of those loathsome and vile things to which we have pledged our bodies and souls in love. We set aside today our crowns and scepters, even what we may wear by right of the royal and priestly baptism we have received. In their place, we chose to be laid low, to have our sight restored. If our ashes humiliate us, then this is not to be lamented. Rather, if we embrace the Lent they represent, we will find in them a freedom from false and foolish loves, and ourselves returned to our Spouse, our King, and our Lord, Jesus Christ.

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