and The Earth Opens

Ash Wednesday Homily on Numbers 16 and Psalm 88

Psalm 103:1-2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

In the book of Numbers there’s a story about a man named Korah of the tribe of Levi who, with a couple of his Levite friends, gathered about 250 chiefs of the congregation of Israel and rose up against Moses challenging his authority and presence as Israel’s leader. Korah spoke to Moses, “‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’” (Num 16:3). The accusation from Korah dropped Moses to his knees, so the story goes. Moses saw the accusation from this son of Levi not as one against him but against God. And so, Moses tells Korah that God will tend to and deal with this situation in the morning. So, morning dawns. Moses instructs the bulk of the congregation of Israel to move away from Korah and his two friends. Once the majority of Israel is safe, Moses says to everyone,

‘This is how you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.’

Numbers 16:28-30

Moses stopped talking. And then:

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, ‘The earth will swallow us too!’ And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense.

Numbers 16:31-35

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they returned.

In the Psalter, Psalm 88 picks up this story. Korah is remembered in Israel’s hymns; the psalmist giving voice to the one who dropped to the bottom of the pit when the earth opened up underneath his feet:

You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
    in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
    and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
    you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
    I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
    Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
    or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
    or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?

Psalm 88:6-14

Psalm 88 has no happy and uplifting ending. The psalmist is not rescued from the pit and darkness is the only thing that accompanies them day and night. God seems absent and distant. And maybe even more than that, God appears to be gone. Not for lack of trying, the one stuck at the bottom of the pit cries out day and night, pleading with an entity that might have left them there to rot. Here enclosed in walls of dirt they suffer, here in the dust they are in agony, and here in the darkness they cry out and….silence.

From dirt they were taken and to dirt they are returned.

These are the mournful, sorrowful, anxious filled, agonizing, words of Ash Wednesday. Today is our reckoning with God—each of us embarks on our own journey into divine encounter. Today we each come into close proximity with the divine and the holy and are exposed as stuck and sick. Today we each recall how fragile our lives are—vulnerable to virus and infection, to breaks and fractures, to mental breakdown and heartbreak. Today we each are reminded of how often we have failed ourselves and others, broken promises, played the charlatan with her act together, opted for self-gain over self-gift. Today we each clearly hear all the voices and see the faces we turned deaf ears and blind eyes toward as they asked for help, for acknowledgment, for dignity. Today we each are brought to our knees in our humanity remembering that our time here is finite. Today we each collide with the ruse of free will and autonomy. Today the ground opens underneath us and swallows each of us. Today we each drop all the way down to the bottom of the pit, landing on hard ground and are consumed by darkness. Today we each echo the psalmist, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (Ps 88:18).

There is no way to bypass Ash Wednesday and proceed straight to Easter. For those of us sitting here in 2021, the new life of Easter is hinged on our encounter with God in the event of faith that is the death of Ash Wednesday. We must each walk this long and arduous path of self-reckoning and self-exposure spanning the time from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. I cannot protect you from it; in fact, I must lead you into it. Today they weight of my stole feels more like the heavy of a millstone than the light of fabric; today I anoint you not with oil but with ashes and dirt.

From dirt you were taken and to dirt you will return.

Don’t lose heart, beloved; hold tight to the mercy of God. There is no end of the earth so far, no pit so deep, no darkness so dark, no dirt and dust so thick where you, the beloved, are out of the reach of the love and mercy of God, from where God cannot call you back unto God. Not even death itself can separate you from love and mercy of God.

He forgives all your sins
and heals all your infirmities;
He redeems your life from the grave
and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
He satisfies you with good things,
and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.

Psalm 103:3-5

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