A Watered Garden: Ash Wednesday
Let’s talk about Bruno
In one of the scenes of Encanto, a Disney Studios film, Bruno (the rejected and supposed weirdo of his family) prepares to use his gift of seeing the future to know the reason his family's casita is falling apart.
When Mirabel, Bruno's niece, first asks him to use his gift, his first objection is that his room, full of sand and stairs, has been destroyed. This is when Antonio, another nephew, offers his ample jungle themed bedroom (his gift is talking to animals and his room reflects his gift), so that Bruno can see the future.
Up to that point of the movie, we know that Bruno's gift is seeing the future, but we have not seen him in action. This scene is the first time we get to see the ritualistic process that Bruno must follow to see the future.
He needs a big and open space.
He needs to make a big circle out of sand.
Then he needs to build a little mound of leaves at the center.
He makes four piles of sand with leaves in the middle.
Once he’s done all of this, he throws salt over his shoulder, lights a fire in the middle of the circle, and uses a twig to burn the leaves that he has placed in the four piles of sand.
As Mirabel watches his uncle doing all these things, she grows impatient. She tries to hurry the process… but his uncle states firmly “You can hurry the future.”
Our theme for this Lenten season has to do with “Practicing Spiritual Disciplines.” Spiritual disciplines are usually thought of as those things that help us draw near to God and might include different forms of prayer, meditation, study, and service. But spiritual disciplines are not things that can be engaged or done easily. They require intentionality, discipline, and commitment. They involve time, and a willingness to transform not just ourselves but the world around us.
So as we were planning this worship time, the first day of Lent… I thought about Bruno.
I thought about Bruno because of his use of sand or soil as part of the process of preparing to see the future. Sand, soil, or dust are an important part of Ash Wednesday. In Genesis 3, God reminds man that: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. The Companion to the Book of Common Worship says that during the imposition of ashes these words are repeated again and again, because we are to remember that we are but temporary creatures, always on the edge of death. We begin our Lenten trek through the wilderness and move toward Easter.
But I also thought about Bruno because his gift comes with an intentional process of ritual. Luisa (the strong one in the family) can lift things up without having to say a phrase or a prayer. Isabela, who has the gift of producing flowers everywhere, does so even unintentionally! Antonio can speak to animals immediately after he gets his gift. But Bruno… Bruno must prepare, Bruno must set the stage, Bruno must concentrate to manifest his gift. It does not come easy… but at the end of the day it helps his family to have a new vision for their lives together.
“Why do we fast and you don’t see; why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?”
But… we can’t talk about Bruno because human nature always favors easy paths… and not the paths that require more intentionality and work. And I believe that God does not want that from us, as you can see in Isaiah 58:1-12.
This passage, which belongs to the part often called III Isaiah, reflects the problems of the community once they arrived back in Jerusalem/Judah. Even though they have “supposedly” learned their lesson in exile, they go back to old habits. It seems like the community remains spiritually sick and economic and social injustice are rampant in a people that is called to give witness as God’s people.
Worse than that, part of the community is doing well financially, and part of the community is still living in poverty… and those with power and resources live as if those that are poor are invisible.
In the meantime, as it often happens, those that are doing well are complaining: “Why do we fast and you don’t see; why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?”
The one problem with this complaining is that immediate rewards are usually not on God’s plans… specially if people are fasting without expecting to work hard beyond their personal piety or personal wellbeing.
Just as an annual reminder… the kind of fasting that God wants goes beyond not eating chocolate, or drinking alcohol, or not looking at Facebook all the time. These things are not inherently bad. But we are called to go beyond that. God tells Isaiah that the kind of fast that God wants releases wicked restraints, unties the ropes of a yoke, sets free the mistreated, breaks every yoke, shares our bread with the hungry, brings the homeless poor into our homes, covers the naked when we see them, does not hide from our own families.
We will talk a little bit more about the spiritual practice of fasting on Sunday, but you get an idea of what fasting is about in Isaiah. It is not just about a personal practice that allows you to be closer to God… it is an external practice that involves transforming the world around us, into a world of grace, love, and justice.
Isaiah then tells us that when we get in line with the fasting that God wants… then we are closer to God and God comes close to us: “The Lord will guide you continually and provide for you, even in parched places. He will rescue your bones. You will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water that won’t run dry.” Beautiful description of relationship, but it requires practice and intentionality.
To humus we shall return
As I go back to Bruno… it is interesting to see that his journey takes him from a place of sand, towers, dryness, and stairs… to a place surrounded by God’s beautiful creation (Antonio's room). In the first place, he sees a vision of destruction. In the second one, he sees a vision of construction.
We live in the middle of these two extremes… life and death, destruction and construction, lament and hope. Lent reminds us of those two extremes. We are on our way to Calvary. Friday’s coming… but so is Sunday.
In the meantime, we are reminded that we are humus, soil, dust. But through our spiritual practices of fasting, praying, listening to God, embracing simplicity, and unplugging... we are reminded of a question we must ask ourselves, a question that Tyler Mayfield asks: What does it mean to be dust? What does it mean to be humus?
Humus protects the soil over winter and helps to warm it for planting by trapping heat from the sun in early spring. It increases soil fertility and overall health, and thus plant growth, thanks to the presence of beneficial nutrients like nitrogen and carbon.
Humus or dust remind us of death… but as Howard Thurman states in his prayer Life Seems Unaware:
Life seems unaware: Seeds still die and live again in answer to their kind; Fledgling birds awake to life from prison house of shell; Flowers bloom and blossoms fall as harbingers of fruit to come.
Between these two extremes of life and death… we are called to be dust formed by our Living God. We are called to a fasting that does not only impact our wellbeing but also the wellbeing of those around us. We are called to become a watered garden. And through these spiritual disciplines we will practice and train to be faithful. We will experience God’s presence and guidance. And we will obey the call to our lives to share the water that gives life everlasting… a water of love, a water of justice, a water of liberation from oppression… the living water that is God.