Ash Wednesday, Year C, 2016 – Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103: 8-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Lord keep us mindful of the shortness of our days, and that every moment is a gift in Christ.
“Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near …”
Lent is upon us again. I say “upon” because this figure of speech in the English language still captures something that I think we have forgotten in our modern notions of time. We commonly hear our politicians talking about “moving forward.” When something has happened, say they lose an election, they nonetheless regroup and tell the press that their party is “moving forward.” Or when we hear about war plans or disaster relief or a new business merger or the hiring of a new coach, if plans are unfolding well, we are told that things are moving forward. Even if it’s not said so, the connotation is often supposed to be that things are getting better. The later in time, the more we learn, the more we supposedly leaving the past behind.
This is a very natural way of talking in a culture that is making constant technological advances. When I graduated from high school less than twenty years ago, the internet was only then becoming a household possibility. In the next couple of years it became a necessity; a few years after that we all owned cell phones then iphones. To give you some perspective, Amazon was founded in 94, Google was founded in 98, Facebook in 2004, Youtube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, in 2007 Netflix went online and the iphone was released. Prior to this, major technological landmarks were separated by decades–electricity, automobiles, airplanes, television, space-travel. Now it happens in months. It would certainly seem like we are quickly moving into the future.
And yet Lent is “upon” us. What that phrase suggests is not a sort of active momentum into the future, but rather that we are passive in the face of an event that happens to us. This manner of speaking conveys that it is not us who are going anywhere, but that time is happening to us. Lent is “upon” us. It has snuck up on us like a thief in the night. It happens whether we want it to or not.
This betrays, I think, an older view of time–one that is more biblical, one that maybe still connects with our own experience if we think about it.
As a theological student I spend a lot of time in primary material that was written hundreds of years ago. If you approach these writers with a certain humility, if you put aside the belief that we have advanced well beyond them¬–the belief that those who have lately lived are automatically the smartest, they have a lot to teach. In other words, if you show the same humility towards a past culture as you would towards another contemporary culture (African, Asian, Aboriginal), you might still learn something new. One of the new things I’ve learned is that in the past people did not think of themselves as moving forward into the future. Rather, they thought that the future moved towards them. We stand in one spot and the future flows over us like a river.
This I believe is more biblical. As our passage today reads: “the day of the Lord is coming…” I prefer to take this verse literally, for it does not say that we are coming upon the day of the Lord. No, the day of the Lord is actively advancing towards us. It is the difference between standing on a ship and watching a ship sail out to sea. Have you ever stood on a pier as a boat was sailing away and had the sensation that it was actually you who was moving away from the ship? This illusion is analogous to our modern notion of time–that it is us who are the ones doing the moving. So what if our way of thinking about time is all wrong?
I think deep down we haven’t entirely forgotten this way of thinking. Indeed, the advance of technology and political change in our world has left us as a culture actually feeling really helpless and passive. One of the explanations for the populist sea-change in politics below the border is that the average citizen no longer feels like he has any political control. So he turns to a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders to stick it to the elite group who had previously run the party. The sense of helplessness has almost become a generational marker as Millenials, and TV shows about Millenials, express a kind of sad hopelessness about our loss of economic and environmental control. At the popular level a large segment of people are taken in by conspiracy theories that betray a sense of powerlessness. In the same way–and I think more reasonably–people have become very suspicious of the large corporations that run everything (refer back to my previous list). “Don’t be Evil” is the official motto of Google, but a lot of us think that a slogan that thin can only be a cynical cover for evil. Yes, the day of the Lord advances upon us without our consent.
Again, what is this helpless experience of time an alternative to? As I said, the view that time is a progression. If we are the ones moving into the future, then we are the ones in control of it; the future is a product of our designs. This idea makes sense I suppose for those with tremendous power, and yet, as Lent reminds us, we all die. The end of time as we know it is only ever a few years, months, days, or hours off, and then to dust shall we return.
The brute fact of death makes us all powerless. The prophet Joel illustrates this end with the imagery of the earthquake and the extinguishing of the sun’s flame.
Like the earth, our lives are intrinsically shaky and unstable.
Even if we think that our memory will live on, modern physics echoes the prophet Joel in teaching us that our sun will eventually die a heat death. What can it all mean given this common fate?
Do not let the apocalyptic language of the prophets fool you.
The Bible is not a pessimistic book, though it is certainly a realistic one.
It is the case that our futures are out of our control, that we are just dust. And yet this is not cause for despair. Rather, I believe it is the beginning of a tremendous hope.
As the Psalmist sings:
he himself knows whereof we are made;
he remembers that we are but dust.
Our days are like the grass;
we flourish like a flower of the field;
When the wind goes over it, it is gone,
and its place shall know it no more.
But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever on those who fear him,
and his righteousness on children’s children;
On those who keep his covenant
and remember his commandments and do them.
Lent is a time to remember who we are: creatures that are “like the grass.” When the end of days is upon us, we wither. By contrast God’s time “endures forever.” Our endurance depends on whether he remembers who we are: that we are but dust and grass.
What caused God to “remember” this fact? For, dust isn’t very memorable. I believe that it was his own experience on the Cross, since that is where God himself became dust and grass and flesh and blood just like us. It is where he chose to suffer our fate. And because he perfectly fulfilled the Father’s commandments, Jesus attracted his attention and was remembered. You should understand that for the Hebrews to be dead is to be forgotten, and to be remembered is to live.
To be remembered by God in fact is to live eternally.
This is why we believe Jesus rose from the dead. Indeed, because Jesus was remembering you as he suffered on the Cross, you too can live with him. In answer to the question of whether God has forgotten you, the Christian can only answer no. Christ’s suffering on the Cross proves that we are memorable to God.
Despite being dust, then, we are given a future; the future is a gift from God. It is this belief in grace that marks Christian spirituality through and through. It also shapes our attitude to “the day of the Lord,” the day of death. For, even though it comes “upon” us without our consent, that is how all gifts come.
Every moment we experience up to and including our last come directly to us from God. The future is his, and he gives it to us freely.
This is a far cry from pessimism.
Therefore, during Lent we can actually celebrate our mortality. It is a gift of God that opens on to heaven itself. As St Francis sang:
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Therefore, as you come forward for the imposition of ashes celebrate your mortality and thank the Lord that you have a future thanks to Jesus. Amen.