Wednesday 14 February 2024

Where To Begin

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, was on Valentine’s Day this year. That happened three times in the last century and it’ll happen three times in this one (2018, 2024 and 2029) and then we’re good until the next century. It happens because Valentine’s Day is a fixed date and Ash Wednesday isn’t. The forty days of Lent are tied to the date of Easter which is the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. It’s complicated.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who’s confounded by the two traditions happening at once. I would say, though, that it’s a pretty good reminder of life being more than scheduling and more than rituals.

I wonder also - and I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before and will again in ’29 - what Jesus would say if he were here. A conversation with Jesus might be helpful right now.

I think he’d find it funny that we have one day to celebrate love and forty to wonder about our sinful selves with prayer, fasting and almsgiving (the hallmarks of Lent). But wait, we might say, Valentine’s Day isn’t about your kind of love, Jesus. I think he’d find that even funnier because I think Jesus is about the wholeness of love as much as he’s about the wholeness of our being. Love is love, Jesus might say, and it’s for every day. And when you’re wondering about yourself and your relationship with God and the world around you, there isn’t a better place to begin than with the fullness of being love. What, Jesus might say, do you think I was doing in the wilderness?

Hmm. Well, here we are at Lent, the forty days before Easter set aside by the church to mirror the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness (a story told in each of the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke). 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, says Jesus, I see what you did there, but hang on a minute. That’s not how I went into the wilderness, is it?

In each of the gospels, 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).

So 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 - drives him there, Mark writes. 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 think Jesus went 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.

Then, Jesus embarks on his ministry. He lives his true self - the divine spirit and the earthly being. He lives love.

Valentine’s Day, a day of love, on Ash Wednesday? Seems like a good coincidence to me. 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. Remember that you come from the dust of the earth and will return there, but remember that life is for living. And remember that both the divine spirit and the dust of creation that is in you connects you in a profound and intimate relationship with all things.

Now. Where shall we go next?

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