Lent: Life from Ashes
By Michael Bowman
Our creation story in Genesis tells us that God made man (Hebrew word, adam) out of the dust of the ground (Hebrew word, adamah). God makes woman the same way. And God has a great plan for their lives.
The man and woman, as they walk with God in the cool of the day, learn how to be fully alive, how to tend and care for the garden, as well as how to tend and care for one another. Being fruitful and multiplying, as God had commanded them, became a natural part of what it meant to be alive. All was well.
That is until the man and woman wanted more. There was one forbidden tree that seemed to offer the more that the man and woman were looking for. They wanted to learn good and evil for themselves…they wanted to be like God. As they reached for that forbidden fruit and took turns eating it, they did, in fact, learn new things, but it was not quite what they expected. With each bite from the forbidden fruit, the man and woman learned fear, blame, guilt, and shame. When God comes looking for them, the man and woman now hide.
Then, the man and woman are sent out from the garden by God, and they learned a new reality – death.
“…you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19
Or, as Eugene Peterson translates this verse, “…you started out as dirt, you’ll end up dirt.”
These words ring out from sanctuaries and chapels, homes and cathedrals, throughout the world every year on a Wednesday (known as Ash Wednesday) that begins a season known as Lent.
As it goes, people will enter into these sacred spaces and as these words are shared with them, a mixture of oil and ashes will be smeared (the church-y word is “imposed”) on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. This mark is a reminder of our mortality as humans – that one day, we will face the reality of death.
Lent has begun, and the reminder of the reality of death will ring in our ears for the next 40(ish) days.
HOW WE GOT HERE:
Advent begins the Christian year with the pregnant expectation of new life in God. At Christmas, birth has been given to new possibilities of life in God. During Epiphany, we, like naive children, or like the naive magi, dare to dream big and impossible dreams and journey after a seemingly unreachable star not knowing what may be waiting for us when we arrive.
And then we come to Lent. Lent is a season of adolescence. We have spent the last two months as childlike dreamers, but we now recognize our innocence has been lost. At Lent, we come to a full stop and take an account of who we are, or maybe who we have become. We look inward and focus on the difficult realities of ourselves, others, or the world around us. We allow ourselves to ask questions, work through doubt, and even wrestle for our identity and purpose.
Matthew tells a story in his Gospel about a ridiculous looking and sounding man named John. John baptized people, so he was known as John the Baptist…because that’s what he did (kind of like how Big Bird is named Big Bird because he’s a big bird…okay, sorry for that). Jesus, who happens to be John’s cousin, shows up one day to be baptized by John.
As Jesus comes up out of the water, God speaks and shares with everyone present exactly who Jesus is – “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The Holy Spirit descends and rests on Jesus like a dove. Then, the Holy Spirit immediately sends Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1). Notice, Jesus was not led by the Spirit into public ministry – preaching, healing, etc. – but into the wilderness to be tempted.
This is meant to cause the reader to remember the story of God’s people when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. The Book of Exodus shares with us how God’s people, the Israelites, spent 40 years in the wilderness (the desert) before God led them into the Promised Land.
In both stories, one may notice how God provides for Jesus and his people. When the devil leaves Jesus, we are told the angels minister to him. Even while the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, God provided them with “manna” that they may continue to be fed.
LENT FOR YOU AND ME:
During Lent, we not only remember these stories, but we enter into our own wilderness – whatever it may be. Our journey in Lent begins with a reminder that we will die one day – all of us. Throughout Lent, if we allow it, we enter into the wilderness and face head-on our present temptations, the threats of evil in our world today, our biggest questions and doubts, how we may need to die to ourselves to make more room for Christ, and all of the ways in which we have misplaced our loyalties or our desires. In the wilderness, we can see more clearly the places in our lives where we need healing most, the aspects of who we are that need to be made whole, or the dead places in us and around us that need to be restored back to life.
“Lent invites us to risk the journey through death to life, to enter a wilderness filled with danger, to enter the desert where both God and the evil one dwell.” – John H. Westerhoff III
(I can’t get through one of these without quoting this guy…)
If you are like me, you may want to skip Lent completely. It might sound because Lent, as a whole, sounds too sad. Maybe, all you know about Lent is that we are supposed to give up sugar or Facebook, and you don’t want to give up either. Or, maybe, you would rather skip Lent and get to Easter, because Easter means feasts, time with family, pastel colors, and smiling faces.
The good news for us is that Lent is a season devoted to giving us room to remember just how easy it is for us to forget that we are totally dependent on God and his grace for life, itself.
Lent is not a season to be skipped over. The season is set aside to allow followers of Jesus to form new habits rooted in spiritual disciplines. It is a time where God’s people rid themselves of comforts or things of this world, to create more room for God in their lives. Really, Lent can be thought of as a time where we open our broken selves to God to allow him to make us whole.
Though Lent is 40-plus days long and can feel long, the wait is worth it. Lent ends with perhaps the biggest and greatest celebration of the entire Christian year…
Easter is coming.
Yet, to skip over Lent would be to miss the point of Easter.
Without death, there is no resurrection.
The apostle Paul said it another way – “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies…What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 15:36,42)
We begin Lent with ashes being smeared onto our foreheads and being told that we will die. We are adolescents searching for our identity in the dark. Yet, we end Lent with an acknowledgment of who we are and what we live for, on the cusp of our new story – we are to become witnesses and recipients of God bringing the dead back to life.
Again, most people think Lent is a time where we are supposed to give up stuff we like – social media, sugar, fatty foods, laughter, or fun (just kidding about those last two). But this would be missing the point.
This Lent, try something different.
First, go to an Ash Wednesday service and be reminded of your mortality. Then, give yourself time and space each day going forward to look inward. Enter into the wilderness, knowing that you are not going alone – the Spirit is with you. Search for how you have been trying to define yourself, for the ways in which you have done wrong, for the questions and doubts that you may have, for the areas in your life that need healing, or for the dead parts of your life that need to be brought back to life. Ask God to help you. Fast. Give yourself time for silence. Read the Scripture. Listen.
As you do this, you may begin to find broken areas of your life. Offer these areas of brokenness to God. Allow him to make these places whole.
Dare to remember that God made life from ashes, and he is going to do it again.