Psalm 95, 32, 102, 130, 143. Amos 5:6-15. Hebrews 12:1-14. Luke 18: 9-14.
“Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still”
― T.S. Eliot
Today is Ash Wednesday. A day where we begin the process of being re-formed and re-membered, with our journey beginning in the dust (or ashes) of last years Palm leaves, in order to re-vision the impending death and resurrection of the Son, in expectation of the liberation of this people. A day unlike any other in the church calendar, and a day that my wife and I consider a first for both of us. You see, growing up we didn’t celebrate Ash Wednesday. It wasn’t because we didn’t know, but the majority of my friends were Catholic and we were part of a minority in the church community that was Protestant. But what does this mean for us today?
Traditionally, the palm leaves from the Palm Sunday of last year and burned and the remaining asks put on the forehead of those in the church who begin the 40-day Lenten journey to the cross and resurrection. And we celebrate today as the beginning time of being re-formed and re-membered as those who are marked by the cross of Christ. Each of us in his own way, marching in a pattern that our King lived and died for.
We are dust…
Carl Sagan was right, we are literally made out of star stuff. the body chemistry reflects that truth — so the difference between the sun and us is simply this: God reached into the earth and breathed into it. That’s it. And when we die, we will join the earth in giving glory to God, and shade to man.
So why dust? Today’s readings had a lot to do with going out into the desert and the words that God speaks over a dry and barren land. In Hebrews there is a clear reference to Israel’s hope in Isaiah 35, where God would make a place of springs in the desert place where the sick could be healed and the lame could leap like the deer.
And how many of us have put our head to the dust and nothing seemed to change? Whenever we lay out heads down, may we not forget to allow our faces to be lifted into the light of His countenance. But then there is this guy named John. He was a rebel in the day of Jesus. standing in the desert, declaring to the people that God’s judgment was coming and they were to make straight the paths of the Lord. Little is spoken about John in our churches these days, except that we all know he baptized Jesus! But why did he do the things he did? Short answer: John was stirred by the Spirit to go out into the desert and tell the children of Israel to repent, reflecting in his activities the prophets of old. Not only was this fascinating to watch in first century Palestine, but John was doing something even more radical: he was offering the temple waters outside of the temple. In other words, he started an alternative-temple movement where people could be forgiven without going into the gates of Jerusalem.
“Don’t wait,” he might say. “These walls were built long ago to protect the traditions, but they are suffocating you! Come to the desert and remember the call of Israel from your God! Hop into the water and be cleansed of your sins. The day for starting over is today!” And of course, the death of Jesus inaugurates that liberation, but not in the way that Kings usually “liberate” villages in that time, by raping, killing. Our God liberates by healing and calling to repentance.
If you have desert boots then break them out for today! I am…just saying. And no, I am speaking of something more than a nifty Clark’s shoe purchase. I am speaking of starting again in the new year by repentance. Not graveling on the floor, hoping that God actually forgives you, but joining in with the activities of saints to change the way you think as we wait with anticipation for the coming of the Messiah.
As you spread the ashes onto your forehead, remember that you die for the hope that is to come with the rule and reign of God on earth in the person of Jesus. We make the sign of the cross the remind ourselves that we each, in Christ, live the cruciform life every day.