Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

T.S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday"

Today, Ash Wednesday, is a day on which we reflect on all the times when we feel the way that Eliot describes. The cold, gray times come upon us, when all we sought, all we hoped, all we wanted seems far away. We know there were crossroads we passed where a different turn might have produced something more like what we had desired. But we are here, and it is now. Those turns are behind us, and we cannot turn again.

Jesus, in the Ash Wednesday lesson, has left the glory of the Spirit descending upon Him and His Father acknowledging Him to all who would hear, and the Spirit has led Him out into the desert, where He fasted. It is His cold, gray time. There is no returning to Jordan; there is no glory; there are no crowds before whom He can announce His Gospel. He is hungry, thirsty, and alone.

In that moment, the devil comes upon Him, and shows Him that if He displays His power and glory in ways that are not appointed for Him, He can be full again; He can have the kingdom, the power and the glory. All Jesus has to do is this one little thing--kneel before the devil. Turn from His appointed course to embrace what He should not, and He will have rich presents.

So, too, the devil comes to us in these cold, gray moments. Are you in need? Do this, and you can eat your fill. Are you alone? Do this, and you will have the companionship of one whom you desire. Are you helpless? Do this, and you will have power, even perhaps power over those before whom you are now helpless. All you have to do is one little thing.

What that one little thing is differs with each of us in the details, but never varies in what it really is. What is more--we have all done whatever that one little thing, not once but again and again in our lives. But for Christ's intervention, we would be in the devil's grasp, his slaves, held there by whatever it is that we think we cannot do without. We would be utterly lost. Without Christ, we are utterly lost.

Jesus, however, would not do that one little thing, whether it be turn bread into stone, cast himself down from the point of the Temple, or fall down and worship the devil. By the way, notice that what the devil wants Him to do is progressively worse. It is hard for us to see the evil in turning bread to stone; the evil there is simply that the devil wants Jesus to do it; it's just taking the easy way out. From there, the devil suggests to Jesus recklessness. Whether or not angels will swoop in and catch Him, it is simply crazy to throw oneself off the top of a large building. Finally, the temptation is to outright evil--the worship of Satan. In Jesus' case it's even worse because it would be the repudiation of His own Godhead. The one little thing gradually becomes the one very big thing.

That is how temptation usually comes to us, too. The first temptation is something that hardly even looks bad, and really looks rather sensible. Then come gradually increasing evils. Prudence turns to imprudence, to carelessness, to recklessness, to intentional misconduct, to real crimes, to out-and-out evil. And it is, as C.S. Lewis says, the gentle, grassy slope, without signposts, without milestones. And the time when the devil is most certain to come with these things is when we are tired, miserable and frustrated.

Being tired, miserable and frustrated is not an excuse. Jesus, when He was hungry, thirsty, and tired, still withstood the temptations, and we have no excuse for breaking God's Law. But these times are also an opportunity for some of the greatest growth in Christ.

At these moments, we do not have the other temptations, of glitter, of comfort, of glory. There is little room for pride at such times. Any pride we had has been shattered in what has happened to us to bring us to this cold, gray moment--or it well should have been. There are, of course, those who, when such a moment comes, become Achilles sulking in his tent, nursing wounded pride. That is not the way of a Christian, and it should not be our way.

Instead, we, with all else gone, turn to Jesus, and sing:

Jesus, refuge of the weary
Blest Redeemer whom we love
Fountain in life's desert dreary
Savior from the world above
Often have Your eyes, offended,
Gazed upon the sinner's fall;
Yet upon the cross extended,
You have borne the pain of all.

(Jesus, Refuge of the Weary, by Girolamo Savonarola, tr. Jane F. Wilde. From The Lutheran Hymnal)

With our eyes turned to Him, we turn to Him completely. The Lenten fast is not an idle show, nor is it a meritorious act that gains His favor. Instead, it is setting aside the other things that would get our attention and may serve to distract from remembering that He, too, walked through the desert, tempted by the devil, as He prepared, not to rule the kingdoms of the world, but to found His Kingdom on a cross, despised and scorned, yet King of all. In Him, and only in Him, is our trust. Amen.