Apologies, real and imagined, Part II
The Rev. Jason Poling is the pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville.
On Wednesday we Christians begin the season of Lent. Starting with Ash Wednesday, we enter into a time of reflection, of self-examination, of confession, of penitence.
Or at least some of us do. Some are so put off by religious rigmarole that they will have no part of irrelevant rituals. Others think themselves above this sort of morbid negativism; they could not imagine singing along with Augustus Toplady’s classic hymn “Rock of Ages:”
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to the cross I cling
Naked, come to thee for dress
Helpless, look to thee for grace
Foul I to the fountain fly
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Naked? Helpless? Foul? No, they say, I don’t think I’m that bad off. I’m not the best person, but I’m pretty good, and I don’t think I really need anybody else’s help.
But traditionally the Church has taken quite a different view: We are sinful from birth, we are sinful by our own choices, we are sinful by ingrained habit and that’s no surprise since everyone around us is too. We live in a world where the effects of sin are seen all around us, where the very institutions that sustain us are thoroughly shot through with human frailty at best, Infernal evil at worst.
As the great 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “Religion is very easily used to obscure rather than to reveal the primitive forces which control so much of human nature. Religion without a constantly replenished force of penitence easily becomes a romance which brutal men use to hide the real sources of their actions from themselves and from others.”
Therefore our church, like many others, will begin Lent with an Ash Wednesday service during which we will be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. We will wear ashes on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality. Mindful of the fact that our life is but a vapor, we will confess to God and to one another that when it comes to examining our consciences during the six weeks of Lent none of us will run out of material that ought to provoke repentance.
Of course, Christianity is not the only religion to focus the attention of devout on the reality of human depravity (original sin being, in the words of the great Roman Catholic apologist G. K. Chesterton “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” by the obvious reality of human experience). Our Jewish neighbors recite during Yom Kippur (day of atonement) services the Al Het, a prayer of confession arranged in acrostic format so as to accomplish the work of admitting sins “from A to Z.”
The Al Het is an impressive piece of liturgical work. In the Book of Common Prayer, we Christians are led to confess “that we have sinned by our own fault, in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” Oftentimes we will allow for a period of silent confession after mentioning a few specifics. But in the Al Het the worshipper begs God’s forgiveness for “the sin we have sinned before You under duress or freewill, and for the sin we have sinned before You in hardness of heart” — and then likewise for 22 other pairs of sins.
So I was struck by the news that during Chanukah Jimmy Carter had offered an Al Het. President Carter has been an outspoken critic of Israel, and has been accused of anti-Semitism by many not ordinarily prone to throwing such a term around lightly. Most recently, his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid drew a furious response from Jewish leaders in Israel and America for likening the government of Israel to the racist government of South Africa under the National Party.
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