Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the day when Christians defy every lie sold to us by Madison Avenue, the American healthcare system, and the median age of the Democratic candidates for president.
Here’s the lie:
We’re not getting out of this life alive.
Not a one.
Heaven may be for real, but Death sure as hell is for real.
With dismal colored ashes, tomorrow Christians confront the stark, counter-cultural truth: from אֲדָמָהadamah (‘earth’) we were made and to the adamah we shall with 100% certainty return.
Ash Wednesday is about our sin, which is but a way of saying it’s about our mortality, which means it’s about all our finitude, shortcomings and contingencies wrapped up in that time-bound word. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the Latin word for fortieth, recalling Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wilderness before his ministry led him inexorably to the cross.
Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness echo the forty years Israel was tested in the wilderness after their Exodus from slavery into Egypt. Whereas Jesus squares off against the devil without a hitch (‘man does not live by bread alone’ says the starving Jesus), Israel fared a bit worse (see: calf, golden).
Jesus does what Israel could not do for itself.
Jesus, it seems quite obvious to the Gospel writers and those who coordinated our lectionary, represents all the people of Israel in his own person.
And that’s no small point to note as we begin a season in which many Christians will begin their own ‘testing’ by forsaking chocolate, booze or social media. There’s nothing wrong with fasting and discipline to anticipate the Easter feast. The Church has been doing so for centuries, and, as for myself, I will be giving up both beverages of the fermented variety and furry animals on my dinner plate. And if previous Lenten fasts are any indication, I will probably be successful at this modest undertaking.
But, however good they be, modest Lenten goals that, truthfully, only intrude upon my daily life as ‘annoyances’ miss the larger point of the season:
Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves.
Jesus represents all of us in his flesh, taking all of our sins in his body upon a tree.
It’s true that in Jesus, God became one of us, was every bit as human as each one of us, experienced everything entailed by our humanity.
But it’s also true that while being 100% Human, Jesus remains, simultaneously, 100% God.
Though one of us, Jesus is not just one of us at all.
Quick history lesson:
Beginning in the 18th century, Christians began to take their cues from the Enlightenment. Now, only that which was rationally demonstrable and confirmed by our own private experience was considered ‘true.’ Rather than conforming their definitions of truth to scripture, Christians looked to scripture to confirm their a priori presumptions about what was ‘true.’ Where it did not, scripture was now considered ‘myth.’
So, for example, the story of Jesus’ Forty Day testing by Satan in the wilderness is no longer a ‘true’ or realistic story about what Jesus has done. Instead Christians turned to the story of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness and saw in it a parable for their own times of trial and temptation.
Rather than being a unique story about Jesus’ absolutely singular vocation, it became a generalized story about our common human experience.
If you’re in a church that follows the lectionary, just listen to the sermon tackle Jesus’ wilderness testing. Is the sermon about how Jesus’ trials are examples of trials that come to all of us in life (cue personal- probably sports- illustration from the pastor). Or is the sermon about how in the wilderness Jesus begins his work of doing what neither Israel nor we can do for ourselves?
The Gospels tell not the story of generalized human experience found in the person of Jesus; the Gospels tell how God in Christ frees human experience from what binds it.
And because Christians ever since the Enlightenment have been so bad at remembering that perhaps this Lenten season we should forget our modest, achievable fasts and spiritual disciplines.
Instead this Lent maybe we should go balls to the wall and take on a test we know we have no hope of ever keeping.
Maybe by choosing a fast we know will end in certain failure we’ll remember the hard but good news with which this season ends:
Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves.
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