A few years ago, I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where – with a group of 16 pilgrims – we travelled in the footsteps of Jesus, visiting places where he was born, grew up, lived and exercised his earthly ministry. In the course of our journey, we followed his path towards his passion, walking down the Mount of Olives, with the vision of Jerusalem over which Jesus cried, and then his triumphal arrival, place of his last supper, place of waiting at Gethsemane, his way to the cross through the crowded streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, and then his place of death and burial. And we followed him on his post-resurrection appearances in Galilee, and in particular the place where he commissioned Peter to lead on in the mission he had started.
Despite the modern day greeting from local salesmen, and the glitzy storefront of Temptation Gallery, a shop trying to tempt the modern day tourist, it is still a desolate place in an arid landscape, and one can easily imagine that it would be an ideal place for anyone on a spiritual journey of self- and God searching and soul recharging.
Along our journey, we had seen monasteries hewn out of the rock in similar locations, where monks and spiritual seekers alike spend much time in prayer, silence, and fasting.
In our busy, urban lifestyles, it is hard to find spaces for spiritual battery recharging, and the local Palestinians of Mount Temptation have us to a T. After a few minutes of looking at something, we are easily tempted to do anything but keep the silence – tempted by the freshly pressed fruit juice, tempted by the camel ride, tempted by the purchase of yet another scarf or other trinkets. We spend, therefore we are, and we don’t need to go any further.
Or do we?
Today, with Christians around the world, we are invited to do just that. We are invited to go further, to apply ourselves for forty days at stripping bare what is important in our life, what is important in our faith, what is important in our human relationships and what is important in our relationship with God.
Today, as we are marked with the cross in ash, we embark on a journey which reminds us of our mortality and our utter dependence on God. Because whether we may be rich or poor, whether we may be successful or struggling, whether we think we are outstandingly beautiful or ordinary, whether we believe we are happy or not, we all face the same existential questions, and we all face the same temptations to try and overcome them.
Like Jesus on the Mount of Temptation, we can easily fall prey to all sorts of delusions when we face our own demons. Whether it’s a bit of a shopping frenzy, a gym mania, outlandish financial schemes, or dysfunctional personal relationships, we are masters at developing ways of filling the voids of our life, and like the modern day pilgrim, nip in straightaway into the supermarket of modern day possibilities to distract us, to allay our fears, to numb our loneliness, and to turn away from God.
Magic solutions are always very tempting, but of course they don’t exist. Nor does looking down on others and scapegoating.
In the course of the next forty days, we are invited to make the time count – time to look deep down into our souls, with God as a loving guide; time to step away from the patterns of living which are no longer constructive for us, but instead lead to destruction; time to reconnect with the one who unconditionally loves us – so much so that he was prepared to put his son on the line for us.
So take this invitation, and live – in the full knowledge that we all are dust, and to dust we will return.