By Ian Graham
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes on a spiritual retreat before he begins to announce the Kingdom of God. If it were me, I’d pick a small cottage next to the ocean where I could feel the sand, soft and warm, under my feet and hear the waves rise and fall as I prayed all day and drifted off to sleep. Also, there’s something spiritual to me about eating really good food with really good friends and family. Ok, my spiritual retreat sounds a bit more like a vacation!
But Jesus, as is his custom, does pretty much exactly the opposite of what I would do. He withdraws to the wilderness, a solitary place abundant in danger and short on water. And he does it alone. He doesn’t sit down to rich meals to laugh with close friends — he saves that sort of behavior for much of the rest of his life. No, Matthew tells us that Jesus doesn’t eat a thing for forty days and forty nights. When the silence of solitude is finally broken, it’s not the Father who offers a “well done” to his Son or the sound of the angels’ offering their praise to the Son of Heaven. The first voice Jesus hears is the accuser, the deceiver offering his solutions to the hunger pangs and promising the world (Matthew 4:1-11). His is the language of consumption. His is the native tongue of this world.
“Take it. You deserve it. Did God really say that you can’t eat the fruit from the tree?”
Jesus, chooses to put himself at the mercy of his loving Father to live a life that acknowledges that he is not subject to every whim and desire. Jesus chooses trust in the provision, abundance and attention of his Father. He doesn’t do whatever he wants to do, whenever he wants to do it, and he is God. In the face of a world that says you can be your own god, God in the flesh chooses trust and submission.
If God in the flesh, devoid of the sins of idolatry and fear, felt it necessary to abstain, to submit his own will to that of the Father, perhaps that concept might be both radical and practical enough to work in our own pride-filled lives. For the American disciple of Jesus, the Lenten season is counterintuitive to the very air that we breathe. Lent invites the Christian, before we take our seat at the lavish resurrection banquet, to join the Son of God in the desert, to trade our freedom and our distractions for something far better and far more dangerous. If you notice in Matthew 4, it’s not the devil but the Holy Spirit that initiates this season in Jesus’ life. And it’s the Holy Spirit that’s beckoning us today.
“Give it up. Thank God you don’t get everything ‘you deserve.’ Put the fruit back on the tree and let me be God.”
Ash Wednesday is the precipice that overlooks the Lenten valley that we must descend into in order to follow our Lord’s journey up the hill of our redemption. The ashes of Ash Wednesday embody two truths that stubbornly refuse to be swept under the rug. First, we are vapor. The cries as we exit our mother’s womb are the furthest we will ever be from death. Every time we breathe we are one breath closer to the grave. Each step we take is one step towards our tombs. As much as we desperately try to ignore it and as much as we are able to delay it, the fact remains, our lives end in death. We are vapor.
Second, the ashes confront us with the imminent consequences of our sins and invite us to behold, in appropriate horror, what our hands have wrought. We have wrought death. We deserve death. As Jeremiah describes the idolatry of the people of God and the divine judgment that results, he invites the people to roll in ashes, mourning the destruction of their choices. Paul tells us that the wages earned by our constant efforts to play god are the death and decay that is so prevalent in our world. When we mourn, when we actually allow God to shine a light on the darkness of our hearts, we confess our roles in the disruption of the peace and justice that were supposed to mark God’s good world.
Yes our lives are fleeting, yes our allegiances are fickle but still Ash Wednesday marks not an end, but a beginning. Ash Wednesday sets us on a path that will remind us that we are no longer mere vapor, no longer mere sinners. For in the midst of the macabre reflection in the mirror we find something even more shocking: hope. For though we are vapor, God is the solid rock who is inviting us into his eternal story. Though we are sinful, God is the faithful one who gives of himself at great cost to be close to us and through these same wayward, broken people, to somehow redeem the entire world. God is a God who breathes life into dust. God is a God who makes beauty from ashes.