Who are you? What was once a simple question, answered by giving your name, has become the chief question of our time. Who are you? People are fighting—perhaps as they have never fought before—for the exclusive right to answer that question on their own terms. Who are you? Well, as it turns out, the world has a lot of identities on offer. We have gender identities. Are you a man? A woman? Who are you? We have racial identities. Are you black? Or white? Or Hispanic? Who are you? We have sexual identities. Are you gay? Or straight? Who are you? The term “intersectionality” has gained prominence in the last 40 years or so, the idea that you are the sum of your social and political identities. You might be a short, Asian, woman. Or a tall, black, man. But there are more identities, aren’t there? Height, race, and gender are only three. We must include sex, class, religion, disability, and physical appearance. And on. And on. Who are you?
But even with all of that, we’re not nearly done defining ourselves yet. Sometimes, we additionally try to answer the “who are you” question with a catalog of our greatest successes. Maybe you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Or maybe your last name means something in the town where you live. Add those things to your social and political identities and you have a compelling answer when someone asks you who you are. A short, Asian man who is one of the most respected tax attorneys in the Midwest. But it can also be alluring—counter-intuitively—to identify ourselves by our greatest struggles. Maybe the color of your skin, or the fact that you’re from the wrong side of the tracks, or the kind of accent you have mean that people have traditionally thought less of you. Add those things to your social and political identities and, again, you have a powerful answer when someone asks you who you are. A tall, white woman from a tough neighborhood who didn’t any of the advantages the rest of you enjoyed.
But then you come to a church on Ash Wednesday, and you let a minister make an ashen cross on your forehead, and he answers the “who are you” question for you. He says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” What is this? What’s going on here? Here it is: we come to worship laying down our supposed right to define ourselves. We acknowledge, in fact, that we never had that right. We set aside our successes and our struggles, we lay down our socio-political location and we let God tell us who we are. The ashes, of course, are optional, but let me encourage you: let a minister make an ashen cross on your forehead. And whether or not you get ashes, let Almighty God tell you who you are.
At first, this might seem oppressive. Someone else, a deity I’ve never seen and maybe don’t even believe in, is going to tell me who I am? How dare you even suggest such a thing! But let me suggest to you that not having to define yourself is great and comforting Good News. There is nothing more exhausting—and ultimately nothing more sure to end in death—than the attempt to self-create. Who are you? Ash Wednesday answers this question. Into all of these identities—the social and politicial identities as well as our successful identities and our struggling identities—into these identities God comes to say that we do not get to decide who we are and we do not have to decide who we are. In fact, God tells us, he decides who we are.
Before I tell you who God says that you are, let’s address—just briefly—the identities that the world tries to seduce us into creating for ourselves. As we do that, we’re going to let St. Paul, Jesus’ great interpreter and author of two thirds of the New Testament, confront them with God’s word, the actual announcement of the truth from Almighty God. We’re going to take them one by one: identity in terms of success, identity in terms of struggle, and then identity by socio-political location.
First, we are tempted to identify ourselves by our successes. You’re someone who went to that certain college. Or who drives that certain car. Or who married that certain girl. You’re someone people look up to, someone they can trust. You’re someone that other people want to be. That’s who you are. St. Paul says, “Oh, really? You think you’ve got something to brag about?” Paul puts his list of accomplishments up against anybody’s in Philippians chapter 3: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” “I have the most successes,” he says. And yet, does he allow these successes to define him? No indeed. “But whatever gain I had,” he continues, “I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ”—and here’s the key phrase—“and be found in him.” Who is Paul? He is nothing other than someone who is found in Christ.
Second, we are tempted to identify ourselves by our struggles. You’re from a place at which other people look down. You had to fight for every inch you’ve gained. No one ever gave you anything for free. In fact, they oppressed you, and maybe your ancestors, too. That’s who you are. Well, Paul might think he has you beat in terms of suffering, too. Listen to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” And, of course, Paul is a man who is beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned on multiple occasions, and eventually killed.
Paul’s thorn is a great mystery. But here’s the thing about the thorn: Paul mentions it here, and never talks about it again! And he must have pretty much never talked about it to anyone, because there’s not really even any church tradition that’s grown up around it. No one knows what it was that Paul begged God to relieve him of because Paul refused to be defined by it. He would not allow his greatest suffering to be his identity. No indeed. Listen to him in Romans 8: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Who is Paul? He is nothing other than a man who cannot be separated from the love of Christ.
So Paul refuses to be defined by his greatest successes and refuses to be defined by his greatest struggle. What about his socio-political location? He got into that a little bit back in Philippians 3 (remember?) talking about how perfectly Jewish he is: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews.” How might he respond to our intersectional approach to self-definition: man or woman, white or black, gay or straight, rich or poor, et cetera on into infinity? Paul refuses such definitions, too. Listen to him in Galatians 3: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The Good News of Jesus Christ is a universal leveler. Your ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender identities are all covered over—made invisible—by the covering and saving blood of Christ. Who is Paul? He is one with you, believer, no matter who you are, in Christ Jesus.
And so we come to Ash Wednesday, and the audacious claim of Christianity: that almighty God himself defines you. That the God who created the day and the night and the seasons of the year reserves the right to tell you who you are. To the one who would create himself, this is bad news. It’s the worst news. You are not your creator. You don’t get to decide. No wonder the world tears its clothes and gnashes its teeth. The allegedly self-made man hates this. But here’s the truth: the self-made man is doomed to die. But there is good news: Almighty God offers you a new creation in Christ and life eternally. God promises to make you new! That’s the Good News! You don’t have to make yourself! You are not the sum of your success or the sum of your struggles. You are not the pile of socio-political intersections that the world has decreed for you. You are in Christ! You are new! Remember the three ways Paul defined himself: 1) found in Christ, 2) unable to be separated from the love of Christ, and 3) one, together with every other believer, in Christ. That’s who you are: in Christ. A beloved child of God. You were dead in self-creation—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—but now you are alive!
Who are you? You are dead in trespasses and sins. Know that, as you receive a streak of ash on your forehead. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. You’re not practicing your piety…you’re acknowledging that you’re dead. Who are you? You are alive in Christ Jesus. Know that, as you come to the table to eat and drink his body and blood, broken and shed for you, giving you new life. You’re not practicing your piety…you’re celebrating your resurrection. We don’t identify ourselves by anything other than the identical ashen crosses on our foreheads and the identically undeserved saving death and resurrection of Christ that has been credited to our accounts. We are equally dead in trespasses and sins, and we are equally alive in Christ’s righteousness. That is who we are. And that is Good News for sinners. New life, created by God, for you.