As we begin this forty days’ Lenten journey – what Eastern Orthodoxy aptly calls “Forty Nights of Bright Darkness” – it is a good thing to reflect upon the meaning of those ashes placed upon our foreheads in the sign of the Cross with the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is good to recall why we mourn together. The ashes are obviously in mourning for the present condition of humanity, but the words convey something more profound – they hint that much more is going on here than the reminder of our mortality. They are also a proclamation of our highest hope. We are being reminded of the sacred promise that we will rise together. And it is about that rising that I write. I have words of Bright Darkness. Come back with me to Genesis and the origin of those words.
Their place of origin was from the mouth of God Himself in the Garden of Eden. The time of their speaking was just moments after our first mother foolishly ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil through the allurement of the serpent Evil One and just after our first father silently and in cowardice had done nothing to defend her. In those two eternally significant actions, man and woman for the very first time in human history had acted individually, each in their self-interest. But it was not as punishment, instead solely for their protection that God immediately drove Adam and Eve from the Garden, thereby preventing them from eating next of the Tree of Life. It was for man’s sake that God our Father allowed death to enter to into our history, that from that day forward they would be from dust and return to dust. For had they partaken of that Tree, they and all of their progeny would have lived eternally as morbid self-consumed monsters.
God’s divinely tough love was born in the very moments following our parents’ sins of self-worship and self-preservation. In that eternal moment, He launched a Selfless Plan that would unveil itself throughout millennia – a plan where God would sacrifice Himself as Ransom for His creation from the snares of death. That is what we mourn with the ashes on our foreheads – not feeling sorry for ourselves and our human condition, but rather, in sincere repentance for the price we know God would ultimately pay to bring us back rising from those ashes.
It takes a radical vantage point to begin to grasp how far we fell at the Fall and to what distances God had to go to bring us back – a vista like that which we gain in Exodus 90. For most of us, it takes the ninety days of a desert experience for us to begin to have the eyes to see like Adam saw before he first sinned.
Adam and Eve knew the difference between good and evil before they sinned – they didn’t need to sin to discover it. God had already told them. The tree’s fruit was fatally dangerous to our first parents because the “knowledge” referred to here was awareness borne from experience. The experience of evil is not benign. All males know this with sadly simple examples, such as the reality that every lustful picture that they allow through their eyes to enter into their souls eyes are there in that soul forever. Every man knows that you can’t undo the damage done by illicit pictures invading your heart and mind through your eyes. The images will be there ready for recall for the rest of your life. Look at enough of those pictures, and they will own you. Sadly, that’s just one example of what God knew when He told our parents to never eat of that tree. Adam and Eve already knew what was evil as well as good because God had said what was evil and what was right. But that kind of knowledge – God knowledge – leads to Life, not death. The Evil One had to wrest our parents away from such security.
But even worse than that, our first parents traded in a Mercedes-Benz Maybach Exelero for a 2013 Dodge Dart when they fell for Satan’s promise that if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would be like gods. Think of this; Satan was telling them the truth. They would be like gods – small ‘g’. But Adam and Eve were already the Image of God – capital ‘G’ (Gen. 1:2)! Why and how could they be so dumb as to fall for that!? The answer is horribly simple – horrible because I do the very same thing every day. To be God’s image, I must obey Him. But to be like a god, all I have to do is be my own destiny. It is so easy, and so fatal. And for people like me, it takes something like Exodus 90 to get my head straight again about all of this. Let me explain.
Many years ago, long before Pope Benedict XVI was Pope Benedict XVI, Father Joseph Ratzinger wrote a book called, “Introduction to Christianity.” The book is a compilation of lectures that Fr. Ratzinger the theologian gave while teaching at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria. In one of his lectures, he taught about the ‘gods’ spoken of in the Book of Exodus chapter three when Moses met “I AM” at the Burning Bush. Fr. Ratzinger say the various false gods of that era fell into three archetypes: gods of food, gods of sex, and gods of power. People in Moses’ time worshipped the gods to which they were enslaved. Some people were gluttons, so they adored food. Some others were caught in lust, so they worshipped sex. And others were addicted to the control of others. So that was their god.
Fr. Ratzinger’s point was that, at the Burning Bush, God appeared to Moses as the promise to rescue men and women from their enslavement to their fallen gods – millennia after our first parents had first sold themselves into slavery. God entered human history at the Burning Bush to rescue Moses’ people. And ultimately, God permanently entered our human history as the Man Jesus Christ to once and for all time destroy humanity’s enslavement to death. It took millennia, but for us today – now – we are ransomed by the Blood of Jesus Christ and restored once again to the Image of God. But now we’re not just God’s human creation; we are forever His Children!
So today, as you and I walk forward and receive those ashes, let us grieve for what Christ has had to do for us. Let us not grieve because we need to lose weight or because our hair is thinning or because the guy next door has a better job or a cuter girlfriend or wife. Let us grieve because God considered us so vital to Himself that He entered human history to ransom us back. Let us grieve because we love Him so much. Let us grieve because we want our brother and sister to know Him too. Let us mourn because the world so severely needs Him. And for that reason, let us re-dedicate ourselves to Him during this Time of the Bright Darkness – that we will all rise from the ashes together. Amen.