Ash Wednesday in Flux: Between Continents, Between Calendars, Between Identities by Michael Collins

To walk through the streets of Amman—not many sidewalks to speak of here—or to sit in the minibus crammed with commuters can be disorienting. Now imagine those commonplace activities with ashes on your forehead. In the sign of a cross.

To be fair a few thousand Ammanis perform this act annually, going about their business as they might otherwise. Yet, for me as a Catholic from New England, an expat in the bahr al-islam (lit. Sea of Islam, referring to the majority population in the region), and as one who has favored the “interfaith” identity-marker in recent years to Catholic, the prospect of carrying these ashes through the whole day (they are to be distributed at 8:30 a.m.) feels weightier than ever before.

As the Catholic Church customarily forewarns, ostentatious piety is discouraged in general, but especially during the Lenten season. [A point apparently missed when I gave up texting several Lent ago, for which I am still begging the forgiveness of some friends.] Of course, the source of this teaching comes from Jesus, who utters this wisdom as part of the Sermon on the Mount:

(But) take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1).

Observing that conjunctive (and parenthetical) adverb, “(But),” in the New American translation, you will be led to the previous chapter of Matthew, in which, after reciting the Sermon on the Mount Jesus advises his audience, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). So if you’re keeping track, be perfect, but let’s not brag about it. Mish mushkila (“no problem”).

As for my own journey and current place of dwelling, I have settled into that forgotten region of the “Holy Land,” i.e. The Royal Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, whose royal family trace their ancestry to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (pbuh). Studying Classical Arabic and an aspiring Islamicist, in recent years I have preferred not to press my own Catholic background to the forefront of my academic identity, despite my own work in studying interfaith dialogue and past work as an activist. Still, while here in Jordan, where Jesus was baptized, where he may have spent those forty days in the wilderness—which are the basis of Lent— I realized it was an opportune moment to reflect on how questions of identity shape me as a scholar, and more generally, as a human being. The confluence of religious history in this region alone compels me in this direction. Just south of Amman is Mount Nebo, the vista from which Moses viewed the Promised Land just prior to his death, and shrines of the Companions populate the landscape and the Prophet Muhammad pbuh himself left his mark on this landscape, such as the site of al-Biqawiyya, “the Blessed Tree,” or known as the Last Sahabi, where a Christian monk met the young Muhammad, and also above Jordan, through the Night-Journey. Besides, for me the time-honored discernment that accompanies this liturgical season is always welcome.

And so, two Sundays ago in a Latin mass in the neighborhood of Jabal al-Hussein, the reading from Luke 5:1–11 placed two of my identity-markers—Catholic and interfaith—in tension. This passage is the classic text on Christian calling, in which Jesus is announcing his public ministry bringing the miraculous haul of fish onto the boat of Simon the fisherman. Jesus turns to his awestruck companions, and says,

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” When they brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Faced with their own epiphanies, Simon Peter and his companions answered this initial question of Christian conscience, accepting discipleship as their vocation. It is this Christian calling, as the Church teaches, that demands and awaits a response, as Christians are placed in the proverbial sandals of Simon Peter to reflect on their own vocation.

For me, however, that calling and discernment is particularly cloudy this year, thanks in part to geographical dislocation, temporal disorientation, and the aforementioned hesitations. While Catholics in America celebrated Ash Wednesday on February 13th according to the Roman calendar, here in Amman and under the guidance of the Archdiocese of Jerusalem we follow the Eastern calendar. Accordingly, Pascha, falling on a different calendar date every year, is that feast that calibrates the majority of the Eastern Orthodox calendar and its feasts, of which Ash Wednesday is not one. Perhaps out of pity for all of the confused Western Christians in the archdiocese, ashes will be distributed on Wednesday, February 20th. In a sense, for me, Ash Wednesday has already occurred and yet not; it will occur, but not really. As T.S. Eliot says, “This is the time of tension between dying and birth / The place of solitude where three dreams cross.” All the while contemplating all matters existential and vocational, I am held in abeyance.

Primarily, I am left to ponder this Lent how I, as an aspiring Islamicist, an interfaith enthusiast, and a conscientiously committed but ambivalent Catholic, can be a “fisher of men.” Packed within that phrase in my mind’s eye is a history of missionary hubris and the tone-deaf arrogance of some contemporary Catholic voices who read and recite that line of the Nicene Creed, “the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church” very differently than I. All of this has very deep resonance in the Middle East, a region where the Catholic Church in many ways embodies all of those things, for Arab Muslims and Arab Christians. Moreover, left to contemplate the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, many people here—and around the world—might remember him as the one who uttered those misguided (to some; for others, the critique is considerably harsher) comments that implied the irrationality of Islam. On the other hand, he has visited this country twice, which equals the number of visits to Jordan of all of his predecessors combined. Furthermore, a new era of Muslim-Christian dialogue has commenced from the aftermath of the 2006 Regensburg lecture, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought and the campaign to make “A Common Word Between Us and You” into not just a document but a worldwide interfaith initiative.

Yet returning to that persistent call of discipleship that is the center of Lenten discernment, I am divided or at the very least befuddled. Bearing the ashes of the cross marks me as what, precisely, here in the Middle East? Is it more in line with the monk Bahira who met the Prophet under the tree or the Petrine minister who criticizes the Islamic tradition? Coincidentally, this historical moment also presents that choice for the conclave of Cardinals. Fortunately, along the path of discernment, the Church teaches that unworthiness is a normal feeling, as outlined in the readings from two Sundays ago (Isaiah 6:1–2a, 3–8; 1 Cor. 15:1–11). Yet I am reassured unexpectedly along the way, while I dwell on the question of discipleship, at this moment and for my journey, and its applicability for interfaith work and, specifically, in Muslim-Christian dialogue. My follow-up question is, “And I only have forty da-… wait, when is Easter here?”

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