So yesterday was Ash Wednesday. For some of my Protestant friends, yes I agree, there is no biblical directive for us to celebrate Ash Wednesday. Just like there isn't a directive to celebrate Christmas or Easter. But there is at its core a great biblical theology of creation, sin, our mortality, grace and death. It calls us to community in our shared brokenness and the humility of our mortality. As a Presbyterian and reformed theologian, I am glad I have added this practice to my spiritual life the last few years.
I have been lucky to serve in a healthcare setting for the last 5-6 years during Ash Wednesday. It is often said to be the busiest day of the year for Chaplains. I argue it is, a hospital I served at imposed over 5 thousand ashes one year. This year, between 2 services and rounding my CCRC, I imposed well over 100 ashes. And I also served communion to two people in our nursing unit, a Lutheran and a Catholic. By the end of the day my hands were black and dusty, and I even had a dirty nose from inadvertently scratching it. I had dirty hands but also holy hands. I was doing the work of reminding people of their sin, mortality and grace.
So I thought I'd share what I shared a few years ago. Enjoy:
So now we are in Lent. Where has this year gone? I feel like I just finished digesting Thanksgiving dinner. But we are in Lent. We are journeying together to Easter. The joy and celebration of Easter. But first we have to go through Lent. A season for Christians, whether it is a new found practice or one of liturgical tradition, it is the most beautiful season of the Christian year.
Our reading for today I think is a great for the beginning of lent. I, like countless preachers around the country, even the world, are preaching on it if they follow the Lectionary. Which is a cycle of Scripture that allows us to preach and listen through the bible for the year. (If you follow it through the 3 year cycle you will have read 80% of the bible.) The past few weeks or months the lectionary has been leading us through Matthew but will switch to John for the remainder of Lent. I think the choice to use Matthew 4 for the beginning of lent is a wise and beautiful one.
What does the 40 days wandering imagery bring to mind? What does it invoke in you? Typically scholars speak of how Jesus’ temptation in the desert connects him to the Old testament. The Israelites too, where led into the wilderness. Through out scripture it acted as place for people to be tested and God to be found and encountered. And Matthew emphasizes that Jesus like the Israelites, was called out to the wilderness to be tested and he passed that test.
In Matthew, Jesus had to exit society, to leave people and go to dessert to experience the divine. He often does that if you know the gospel story. The desert, as you might know, is not a pleasant place, and might be a place where one might face their demons. And literally, it is an unforgiving, dangerous and inhospitable place. Think scorpions, snakes, etc.
The important lesson that I glean from Jesus’ wilderness experience, that I think is important for the next few weeks of Lent is this. That like Jesus, God is calling us into the wilderness. Into those inhospitable places in our lives and inner being to be tested. IF God is calling you to something, you will be tested. It may be as Martin Luther said, I’m paraphrasing, that the devil will show up and “throw you sins in your face and tell you that you deserve hell and death. And you can respond: what of it, I have Jesus Christ on my side, who won my satisfaction.”
Jesus has already been to the wilderness, he’s already faced death and hell for our sakes. When he calls us do the same, his spirit empowers us. We just have to face some scary stuff. Cause really, self reflection is scary. But we are being called to be better, more empathetic Christ followers. So will you join me in the wilderness?