By The Rev. Nan Hildebrand
As Ash Wednesday approaches, I always feel a little behind. I’m never quite ready for Epiphany to end with its extended period of the gifts of awe, adoration, revelation and Thanksgiving and the joy that those emotional states bring to the hard winter months. Given this, I find it ironic that Epiphany is paired with winter with its gray skies, sleet, snow and cold temperatures and that Ash Wednesday is paired with spring and its lengthening days and burgeoning plants. In Spring, the flower bulbs are peeking through the ground, camellia flower buds are formed and tree branches are waking up. The ashes we carry on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday mark our recognition not only of our mortality but of the ashes of our lives. For forty days, we fast, we pray, we confess and face the truth of ourselves and we give thanks for the presence of God through Christ who will be with us through it all. Our 40 days is a time in the wilderness examining the detritus of our lives and our need for repentance, which requires a level of personal honesty and humility so that we may grow from that rather humiliating task. The humility and truthfulness of the time demands more concentration from us than we are usually willing to apportion to our sprirituality on a daily basis. We embark on this journey of truth to rebuke our sin and to turn towards a full relationship with God and our neighbor. The contrast of the seasons belies the fact that rising above all, the celebration and the fast, stands Jesus Christ. Epiphany’s joyousness with deep winter and Lent’s somber introspection with light and growth of spring both reveal the fact of the living Lord among us. The beauty of it all tis that winter and spring we share with Jesus always leads to summer, the full fruiting of our lives.
The first few lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, nurtures our reflection on Lent and spring.
“ April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us. “
Our extended period of Epiphany thanksgiving was like winter as a warm blanket covering earth in forgetful snow. As the snow melts, memory and desire emerge stirring dull roots with spring rain feeding a little life with dried tubers. The things that are buried in our hearts and our hurts are alive and have power over us. They have more power over us hidden rather than examined and offered to God. As spring arrives, the weeds emerge from barren ground just as do the things that we wish to see and to nurture. The weeds of sin and hubris in our lives always emerge into the open sometime, so what better time than in a period of self-awareness, prayer and confession. It is the weeds emerging along with the lilacs and dried tubers of tulips that we pay attention to during Lent. It is gardening season outdoors and inside ourselves.
With lent and with spring, we are about the wild things and the way they can thrive in the wildernesses in our earthen gardens and in the labyrinthine folds of our psyches and souls. Ash Wednesday reminds us of the beginnings of our dust and to the dust to which we must return. In Lent, we are about wilderness experiences.: Jesus and ours. Jesus’ wilderness story is all about Satan and hunger and faithfulness and it is our story too. Jesus’ story of temptation in the wilderness is the best place to begin to examine our own wilderness experience in Lent. Lent mirrors Jesus time in the wilderness.
I depend on Matthew’s story in chapter 4 of Jesus and Satan and hunger in the wilderness. Satan has insatiable hunger for power and Jesus’ hunger is rackingly physical. Here is a synopsis of Jesus meeting Satan in the wilderness. We will link it to our own encounters with Satan in the wilderness of our souls. Some important facts are:
- Jesus’ time in the wilderness included not only hunger, most certainly thirst, but a 40 day encounter with Satan.
- Satan, the tempter, waited to tempt Jesus until he was hungry.
- Satan tempted Jesus to turn stones to bread.
- Satan tempted Jesus by encouraging him to test God to see if God would truly save him if he threw himself off the highest point of the Temple.
- Satan tempted Jesus with every known luxury and power from all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would submit to Satan.
- Jesus ejected Satan from his presence, “Away Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’
- The devil left Jesus and Jesus was attended to by angels.
The linkages of our liturgies to the creation are strong throughout our entire year. Jesus’ wilderness is a facsimile of the Garden of Eden, made so lovingly by God for Adam and Eve and the animals. The Garden’s neglect is now a wilderness currently with a terrible tenant of evil. Jesus revisits and replays the failure of humankind in the Garden transforming Adam and Eve’s failure into victory for humanity by Christ. Jesus threw the devil out of the wilderness and began the process of recreating the Garden of Eden always promised to us, and now also known as The Kingdom of God. Jesus always reminds us that we cannot talk about God without being reminded that God created the earth, the heavens, the animals and us and, now, we believe with credible scientific assumptions, also the other forms of life out somewhere in other universes. The ephemeral of the divine in our contemplation always connects to our bodies, to our mortality, to the mystery of our beginnings and endings and to an examination of the limits of our powers in the face of divine power. The wilderness story plays the story of humankind forward into a victory story over evil and a victory story that is resonant with the overpowering love of God and the ability of humanity to love others before themselves.
With brother Jesus’ victory over evil in the wilderness and with his presence the victory of The Kingdom of God on earth, we are able to enter the Lenten season unafraid. Our wilderness experience is designed for our victory over our own evils. Christ’s story teaches that the wilderness is the place that evil and the victory over evil can be made. God is always present and God’s angels always attend.
Our Lenten observance requires us to pray. The Lenten prayers in our Prayer Book are the basis for our Lenten spiritual and physical goals. We are first to speak of the confidence and faith that God hates nothing God has created. No matter what God does not hate us. God forgives the sins of all who are penitent. We can be confident that in our penitence and rejection of sin, perfect remission and merciful forgiveness arrives. We can be assured that joy arises from our period of self-examination and confession, from our prayer and fasting and self-denial, and by our reading and meditating on God’s holy Words which is no less powerful than the joys of Christmas or Epiphany.
The birth of Jesus and the season of Epiphany revealed to us the gift we have in Jesus. We were given a flesh and blood example of the will of God in Jesus and we were given a picture of what we could be in Christ with the invitation to be like Christ. With this invitation and with the knowledge of Jesus through the Gospel and the lives of the Disciples in The Acts we are given a measuring stick of how far we have to go to be all God intended for us individually and collectively.
We are given the opportunity to enter our period of fasting and self-denial of the things of which we are overly attached and which separate us from God and from each other. We are offered the opportunity to refuse the temptation to test God, to bargain with God, and to seek power and luxuries that have nothing to do with God. We are offered the ways we harm our relationships and the chance to seek God’s help in a cure for sin. We are offered the period of introspection to see the ways our own self-regard tempts us to over-reach our powers in a way that tries to emulate God rather than emulating Jesus’ humanity. We are offered an opportunity to kneel before God and to refuse to kneel before Satan. There is nothing less than the drama of the victory of life being played out in all our souls in every day of our lives. From Ash Wednesday to Easter, we have a special opportunity to take a journey away from the blanketing snows of forgetfulness of our unproductive ways and transform the dead roots in dead land into thriving lilacs of a fruitful and blossoming living. Lent is meant to transform the winter of our souls into the liveliness of springtime in our souls filled with the visions of extraordinary living in perfect harmony with God, with creation and with all that lives on this fertile plain.
May God bless you during this time of Lent all the way through Easter. May this be a time of courage, of faithfulness, of truthfulness, of forgiveness, of reformation and, most of all, a time of joy.
The Rev. Nancy Hildebrand