Genesis 9:8-17 Psalm 25:1-9 1 Peter 3:18-22 Mark 1:9-15
As many of you know, a group of former inmates meets each week in Fulford (or, this year, online) to support one another in building a new life which is truly free. I learned this week that, each year, they set aside a day to remember those who never got to taste freedom again: those who died in prison, of natural causes or by their own hand. On that evening, each member of the Open Door community is given a slip of paper and invited to write on it the name of someone they remember, and then to tell his or her story. When all who wish have spoken, the names are gathered into a bowl, prayed over, and burned. Then, secretly, Peter Huish takes those ashes and mingles them with the burnt palm crosses which we use to mark the congregation most Ash Wednesdays. These ashes…
I’d like to invite you to imagine those stories for a moment, those lives. The person who had fallen into evil or degradation, who now wishes to try to choose new life. The person who is trapped in bitterness or in rage. The one who’s in denial. The person who was hurt so badly as a child that he or she cannot even figure out what it means to be whole. The parents who long to see their children grow, or the grown children who face the aging and loss of parents they cannot see. The illiterate person, learning, with great effort, to read — and having his or her horizons blow wide open. The wrongfully-convicted, trying to cling to hope. The justly-convicted, doing the same. Within the walls of the prison, the whole human drama plays out, and when we are marked with those ashes — the ashes of Palm Sunday, the ashes of slips of paper which once bore the names of these men and women — we are marked in radical solidarity with all that pain and struggle and hope. Those ashes bear witness that, through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ, we are redeemed, even though we are no better than our neighbor.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, or — this year, the 49th — when, as every year, we begin with the story of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. It’s a strange place to start, and one which invites all kinds of theological speculation. Could the Son of God really know temptation? I mean, if he was perfect, wouldn’t it have been pro forma? To me, however, the temptation is the only place to start, because it is in that time of struggle and trial and testing that Jesus truly entered into solidarity with humankind. Yes, he had worn flesh and blood for thirty years, but it matters that he also knew our struggles, that he was not some cosmological super-hero, immune from the testing which is part of our lives. It matters that, at the time he was driven out into the wilderness, he did not know whether he would meet the test, any more than we know it of ourselves. Today’s reading, which includes Christ’s baptism, gives us both halves of the holy paradox: that Jesus was God’s beloved son, and that that identity could only be claimed in radical solidarity with the whole human family, including the outcast and the broken. God’s son was not better than anyone, because it is the nature of God to choose not to be.
My own embrace of that solidarity this Lent lasted only a few hours into Ash Wednesday. That’s when the media announced the death of a man who had been a significant spokesperson for hatred of all kinds: anti-gay, anti-women, anti-black, anti-immigrant. Anti-love. A man who had served as a gateway-drug for hatred, opening doors which were later used to broadcast increasingly extreme voices. When I read the news, my first reaction was “Good riddance!” Then I remembered one of my favorite verses of Scripture: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11) The contrast was not painless. And, of course, both perspectives were true. From a human point of view, the world was better without that man in it, or, at least, without that man corrupting others with his point of view. But from a divine perspective, he and I are both in need of grace. I may try to live in better ways; I may, in fact, shed more light into the world; but compared to the glory of God manifest in Jesus Christ, each of us falls short. And when we die, each of us will stand before the throne of grace, gaze upon the face of God, and need to find a way to say, “I was wrong. I am so sorry. I did not understand the fullness of your love.”
This year, I have been thinking about the dynamics of solidarity at a time of great darkness. In ordinary times, we experience life in shades of color, but in times like these, it is all too easy to see only the extremes. Police who kill or brutalize black people: bad. Nurses and doctors who work endless hours in Covid wards: good. Corrupt, authoritarian leaders who trample on the marginalized: bad. Chefs who pour out their energy to feed the homeless, the hungry, and the victims of natural disasters: Good. And, from a human point of view, it’s all true. But it also distorts our true place in the picture; it exaggerates our virtue. In a darkened room, even the dimmest light seems bright. But we are not called to smoulder. We are called to shine. It is not enough to compare ourselves to the worst and say, “Well, at least I’m not that!” We are called to hold ourselves accountable to our own potential, and ask God for grace to do better. We are God’s beloved, just as Jesus was — but we are also not better than our brothers.
St. Mark is reticent about the details of Jesus’ temptations, but we know then from the other evangelists. The temptation to turn stone into bread; the temptation to rule the world; the temptation to fling himself from the pinnacle of the Temple. Each of these was, at its root, a temptation to refuse to be like other human beings. For Jesus to see himself as extraordinary, when our salvation depended upon Jesus being willing to be utterly ordinary: To be hungry. To thirst. To suffer. To die. That ordinary.
But in embracing his humanity to the fullest, Jesus did something extraordinary: he broke through to an absolute authenticity towards which most of us can barely aspire. He who began his ministry by being claimed by God — This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased — dared to live from that point of absolute acceptance. Most of us spend our lives trying to earn it, although it is given to us, as it was to Jesus, at our baptism. Jesus lived it — and it set him completely free to be the man God had created him to be. Free to choose his own path, secure that God’s love would be there. Free to care for the stranger, the outcast, the child. Free to challenge received authority, to risk everything on the possibility of transforming twelve pig-headed friends enough for them to change the world. Free enough to embody his truth, even when it led to the grave.
C.J. Jung wrote, “Are we to understand ‘The Imitation of Christ’ in the sense that we should copy his life…or in the deeper sense that we are to live our own proper lives as truly as he lived his in all its implications? It is no easy matter to live a life that is modeled on Christ’s, but it is unspeakably harder to live one’s life as truly as Christ lived his.” 1 And yet, the love which was there for Christ is there for us. God has made God’s covenant “with all flesh” — and that includes our own.
The true invitation of Lent is not to give up chocolate, or take on holy reading, or even to give more to the poor or to safeguard the planet. The true invitation is to wean ourselves from whatever stands between us and our deepest freedom — the freedom to live authentically as the people God created us to be. So much around us tempts us not to: tempts us to be quiet, to be nice, to conceal our truth, not to rock the boat. Tempts us to seek our wholeness in things, in a career, even in good works. But wholeness comes only with courage — courage to be, courage to love, courage to speak our truth out loud, courage to act and to sing.
There’s a story about a monk named Moses the Black, an Ethiopian bandit who renounced his crime and embraced a life of prayer in the desert in the fourth century. At one point, a brother in his monastery was found in wrongdoing, and the others gathered to pass judgment. But Moses did not join them. They sent for him again, and then again. Finally, he filled a bag with sand, cut a small hole in the corner of it, slung it over his shoulder and came to the meeting. When he got there, everyone wondered, but he said, “My sins run out behind me, and do you ask me to pass judgment on another?” The community heard his words, and allowed the offender to go free.
On the face of it, this is a story about humility — and yet, Abba Moses resisted the pressure of all his brothers to speak his truth. He taught his community by being willing to claim his past, and his present — all of it, both the good and the bad — and to live from that place of groundedness. This Lent, may each of us find that place, and that courage.
1. “Psychotherapists or the Clergy,” Modern Man in Search of a Soul, cited in John Neafsey, A Sacred Voice is Calling.