Thursday 15 February 2018

Love into the wilderness

Sometimes it’s important - even necessary - to have a sense of humour when it comes to church. I know there’s probably some people who don’t agree, so I’m sorry about that, and there’s probably just as many who think there’s some things that can be funny and others that are off limits, so I’m I’m sorry about that, too. I just think that there are moments when seeing the humour in something sacred and holy can reveal something we might not have seen by protecting it.

I think Jesus had quite a sense of humour. I’m not saying he was a comedian or outrageously funny, just that he could tell a funny story or two and see the humour in a situation.

So I wonder, if he were here, what would Jesus say about Ash Wednesday being the same day as Valentine’s Day and Easter Day being April Fools Day?

First, I think he’d laugh. Then he’d say something like “really? You have one day - a single day - to celebrate love, and one day - a single day only - to remember to laugh? Really?” And then we’d say something like “no, no, no. We love and laugh the rest of the time, too.”

That’s when Jesus would stop laughing. He’d look around and he’d say “do you?”

Well that’s worth pondering all the time, isn’t it? But let’s take a moment and consider how these things collide this year. It’s the beginning of Lent right now, so I’ll save my thoughts on April Fools and Easter for later. Let’s just say I think “Jesus pranks death” could be a unique and revealing way to look at the resurrection story.

But here we are in Lent, the forty days before Easter set aside by the church to mirror the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness (Mark 1: 12-13 this year, but Matthew and Luke have their own versions). It’s traditionally been a time of repentance and preparation for Easter, kind of like Advent is for Christmas. Lent has always been a solemn time of self-reflection, prayer and contemplation observed with fasting and penance. Some people still give things up for lent, a symbolic denial of things that tempt us.

Ash Wednesday begins that time with the ceremonial marking of a cross on the forehead, a cross made with oil and ash from the burning of palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. It’s accompanied by the reminder that we are from dust and will return to dust (Genesis 3:19) and the admonition to repent. We enter the season of Lent, then suitably prepared: we acknowledge that we are mortal and sinful.

Okay, but hang on a minute. That’s not how Jesus went into the wilderness.

In each of the gospel accounts, the wilderness is preceded by an account of Jesus' baptism by John. Mark says that there was a “Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:10-12). 

First of all, Jesus goes into the wilderness knowing that he is loved by God and that God’s happy that he is who he is. Second, it’s that same Spirit that comes to him at baptism that sends him into the wilderness. Jesus doesn’t go out there alone. Whether you believe the point of the story is for Jesus to confront the devil or, like me, you think this is really a story about Jesus wondering and learning about himself, he doesn’t go there alone. He goes loved by God and inspired by the Spirit.

And all this happened before Jesus begins his ministry. I wonder if Jesus didn't go out there to wonder about himself, his relationship with God and with other people, to wonder about the world and what was happening.  To reflect without any distractions and contemplate things with an open mind. Of course, with that freedom and openness to wonder came temptation, it always does.  But with the Spirit, Jesus faced it and overcame it.

Valentine’s Day, a day of love, on Ash Wednesday? That’s not even really funny, it’s appropriate. If you’re going to take some time this lent for self-examination and prayer, begin with loving yourself and knowing that you, like all God’s children, are loved by God just for who you are.