It’s unbelievable. It’s untenable. It’s nonsensical, or so it seems. The spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. And he follows voluntarily. Does that not seem a bit adverse to the spirit’s character? Is it not the spirit that fires the preaching of Peter and inspires 3000 souls to join the church? Is it not the Holy Spirit that “revives the soul again” when creators of the Negro Spiritual (feel) discouraged or think (their) work is in vain? Is it not the spirit of the living God that is available to “fall afresh on us.” Yet, there it is in bold print. The One whom we claim to follow and/or has our back humbly follows the spirit into the wilderness after one of his greatest days, baptism in the River Jordan. Even better, our Lord receives a compliment from his father. Namely, “this is my beloved Son on whom I am well pleased.” Why did Jesus go into the wilderness? Answer: to get himself ready to save us.
Quite frankly, Ash Wednesday takes us down the same path our Lord travels 2000 years ago. Why? To get us ready to save others. For a lifetime, we’ll have trials and temptations. The episcopacy is no protection from temptation. Anyone who finds his or her way to any modicum of power, prestige and money must be vigilant, within and without. If devil had no qualms going after the Savior of the world, the tempter has no problem coming after me, you who work at the Area Center, the church or the world. “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” Second, Ash Wednesday, the genesis of Lent, earns it reputation from the practice of placing ashes on the forehead usually in the form of a cross. Centuries ago, our ancestors took time to remind themselves of their own mortality. Offering one another traveling mercies has this sentiment at its base, so do illness and hospitalizations, hostage situation and /or fire fights with the police. Hardly a week passes in my office that Karen does not prepare pastoral notes for me to send to those victimized by accidents, persons of every age and condition undergoing surgery, along with an unrelenting stream of loved ones who have died. I read their story. I sign my name. And I say one day, somebody will be writing my name. Daily, I am reminded that the “earthly tent in which we currently live is nothing more than a lump of clay-mortal waiting to put on immortality.”
Maybe, the true spirit of Ash Wednesday mirrors some of our dietary and exercise goals. We are out of shape. And we need to get in shape, right here, right now. As exercise and diet get us in better shape physically, so do prayer, fasting, the sacraments and sacrifice get us in better shape spiritually. How we fend off the multiplicity of temptations in our daily lives through prayer and self-denial ultimately determines the quality of our response to Christ. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent challenge us to turn the light of scrutiny on our own souls. We must repent of our own sin, i.e., turn away from sin and turn toward God. As we remember our baptism; we must remember our mortality. When I was young, some of the old folks used to say “I’ve got more years behind me than in front of me.” It didn’t make much sense then. Life and Ash Wednesday make me more cognizant of that statement now. “I’ve got more years behind me than in front of me.” Remember your mortality. Are we not going the way Christ has gone through the wilderness, into public ministry, upon life’s crosses, down to the grave, up from the grave with a shout when the trumpet shall sound, caught up to meet him in the air, and grace, God’s amazing grace, granted the privilege of going home to live with God. How does the spiritual say it? “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me O Lord; standing in the need of prayer.”
So what’s the Good News Ash Wednesday and Lent? First, Lent doesn’t last always. It’s only 40 days. Yet, those 40 days can make all the difference in the world. They get us in better shape for this life and the life to come. Second, Lent places us where God can use us for God’s purposes not our own. Is this what may be at work in part by Pope Benedict’s decision to resign the Papacy? Could his quest for better health concern both body and soul? Ashes to ashes and dust to dust; don’t despair over much. All its doing in this life and life to come-is getting us ready for the celebration of Easter. Could this unknown poet have it right? “Death is a path that must be trod if we would ever pass to God.” Is this not the earnest intent of this Ash Wednesday namely, to stand on the spirit led promises of God? Amen.