The Lie of the Ashes
During the season of Lent we are tempted. At least, I am tempted. And I don’t mean that I am tempted to eat that chocolate that I gave up, or to scan Facebook idly for two hours, or to binge-watch an entire season of “The Office” on Netflix. The temptation of Lent, at least for me, is subtler than that. Maybe it is for you. Maybe it has been and we have not even been aware that we’ve fallen to it for so long.
The temptation of Lent is to believe the “lie of the ashes” – that we are no more than the dirt with which we marked ourselves last Wednesday. Lent is so often looked at as a gloomy time of the Church’s year – a necessary reflection on our sinfulness and what we’ve been doing wrong in preparation for Easter. And, while that might be the practice of many of us, it is not what we believe, nor is it what our liturgy professes.
Our readings, this First Sunday of Lent, take us all the way back to the beginning – to Adam and Eve and the perfect harmony of the Garden of Eden. Not too long after their creation (or how long, really?) they are tempted and give in to temptation – a temptation that asked them to place themselves on a level with God. They sin, and St. Paul continues that reflection in the Second Reading, reminding us that because Adam and Eve sinned, we have inherited that ancient sinfulness. This is what we know as “Original sin.”
However, that is not where the story ends – not for Adam and Eve, not for Paul, and not for us. St. Paul immediately moves from this sin to speak about a “gift.” “The gift is not like the transgression,”he writes. “For if by the transgression of the one, the many dies, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.” We are blessed to get both sides of this divine story – the story of salvation.
Jesus begins this Lenten journey with us today in the desert. There, He too is tempted. He experiences the dryness and the need of the empty wilderness, and the devil moves on Him as well. As Jesus is tempted, he rebukes the devil each time. Now, we can simply dismiss that and say, “Sure! But He’s Jesus. Of course He is going to win.”
But, friends, that is exactly the point!
The entire point of these stories – the entire point of our very faith – is that Jesus wins! This should be incredibly good news to us. We don’t have to wait until Easter, until some far-off time when we will finally defeat all the heavy hardships that plague our lives. We have already beaten them, because Jesus has already beaten them. That is the gift that is not like the transgression. The biggest temptation that the devil is going to throw at us this Lent is that none of this matters, none of it makes a difference. And our problem is that often we believe that.
Don’t get me wrong here: we do need a healthy sense of sin and of our own captivity to sinful inclinations – this is part of the fallen human condition. However, it would also be a mistake to forget that now – also a part of our human condition – we are also redeemed by Jesus Christ. This is the victory of Easter – not this coming Easter, not April 12, 2020, but of that first Easter, when Jesus rose victorious from the dead. Because there, the death that came upon us all when Adam and Eve sinned was defeated, and the life of Christ now fills the hearts of those who have been incorporated into His Body through Baptism.
The lie of the ashes is the devil’s lie: you are not worth it; you are nothing more than the dirt from which God made you, and you’ll just be going back there anyway; you can’t win, don’t try. However, it is a lie. The truth is so much more wonderful than that. You are marked with those ashes, yes; it’s how we started this Lenten observance. But we did it with those ashes in the form of the Cross – the Cross of Jesus – by which the devil and all his lies have been defeated. This is the great story of our faith, from our creation in God’s love, to our fall through sinful pride, to our redemption because of God’s gracious gift.
Lent should be a time of repentance and renewal, but it should also be a time for us to come to terms with the fact that God loves us so much that nothing is going to stand in His way as He seeks to bring us home.
Certainly not a few little ashes!