First Sunday in Lent, Year B – Mark 1:9-15
What are you giving up for Lent? It’s a question we often ask ourselves and sometimes others at this time of year.
Of all the answers I have ever given I never said, “I’m giving up Ash Wednesday” – until this year. I never thought we would begin Lent by giving up Ash Wednesday but we did. A winter storm caused me to cancel our Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday plans.
I wonder, though, if we really lost anything by that. Maybe that was exactly how we needed to begin this holy season. Maybe that was a stark reminder to “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
For most of us, I suspect, Lent begins with those words and the imposition of ashes. But not this year. I didn’t say those words to you last week on Ash Wednesday. And I did not mark your foreheads with ashes, “a sign of our mortality” (Book of Common Prayer, 265).
The last time I spoke those words to you and marked your foreheads with ashes was on February 26, 2020, almost a year ago. Neither the passage of time nor the cancellation of our Ash Wednesday liturgy, however, have let us forget or deny the fragility of life and our mortality. A year of the coronavirus and the recent winter storm have made sure of that.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I’m betting those words have echoed through your life most days since last year’s Ash Wednesday liturgy. I’m betting your life has been marked with signs of mortality again and again since last year’s Ash Wednesday liturgy. I am betting you have felt the fragility of life most if not every day since last year’s Ash Wednesday liturgy.
What are you doing with all that? And what is all that doing with you?
In some ways the past year has felt like a long never ending season of Lent. It has been a time of fasting, self-denial, and giving up; a time when people and things have been lost or taken from us; a time that is continually pointing to our mortality and the fragility of life.
Ash Wednesday comes to us in a thousand different ways – the cancellation of a liturgy, a virus, a snow storm. Regardless of how it comes it always the takes us to the wilderness.
Every year the gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent is about Jesus going to the wilderness. Some years it’s mostly a story in the Bible we read or hear. Other years it’s the story of our lives. We live the wilderness. It feels to me like this is one of those other years. This year the wilderness feels really real.
If Ash Wednesday names and marks us with the reality of our mortality and the fragility of life then the wilderness is where we face our mortality, experience the fragility of life, and struggle with how to live with those two realities.
The wilderness is a place of loss and grief, disappointment, and regret. It’s a place of break ups and break downs. It’s a deserted place. It’s a place where we bump up against our limitations and face our powerlessness. It’s a place of risk and vulnerability, uncertainty, and without guarantees. It’s where we realize once again or maybe for the first time that that every day our life hangs in the balance. It’s where we discover who we are and what really matters.
I wonder what that brings up for you today. What does it feel like to face your own mortality? In what ways are you experiencing the fragility of life today? What are you learning about yourself and how you want to live?
Here’s why I ask those questions. I think the Ash Wednesday focus on and the wilderness struggle with our mortality and the fragility of life are less about our dying and more about our living, less an announcement of our ending and more a call for a new beginning, less about being good and more about being fully alive.
Unless we face our own mortality we can never claim the fullness of life. Unless we recognize the fragility of life we will never discover its true value. Yes, life is defined, limited, and bounded by death – we see that every day – but it is not nullified by death. Death is not a diminishment or negation of life but its intensification. (John D. Caputo, Hoping Against Hope, 258) Mortality is what gives life its vitality. (Ibid., 175)
We might think about it like this. Death is to life what a picture frame is to a beautiful painting. It holds before us what is. It focuses our attention. It intensifies and prioritizes what really matters. That this life does not last forever does not diminish life’s value, it gives it value. (Ibid., 158, 174)
And that leaves me asking myself some difficult, often painful, questions. Is there life in my marriage? In my parenting? In my priesthood? In my friendships? Is there life in the way I am living in this moment? Is there life in the way I see the world and relate to others? Am I growing? Am I bringing life to others? Is there life in me even as I face my own mortality? And if there’s not, why not? What needs to change, to be let go of, to be done differently?
Those aren’t just questions for me. They’re for all of us. The temporality of life means that this one moment, this now, is priceless. There will never be another moment like this one. Everything and everyone matter. Nothing and no one are to be taken for granted. Not a minute of time is to be wasted or wished away.
I think that’s what Jesus knew and why he lived as he did. He took no person, no thing, and no day for granted. His life was intense. His love was passionate. His presence was palpable. There was deep meaning and significance to who he was and everything he did. He lived as he did, not in spite of his coming death, but rather, because he knew his death was coming.
And so is ours.
I wonder what that means for you today. What might that mean for your relationships; your priorities; the values you hold or claim to hold; the ways you love, forgive, and show up for others; the places where you invest your time, money, and effort? Is your life taking the shape and direction you want it to? Is there meaning and significance in your life and what you are doing? Is there a feeling of beauty and presence? Do you live with awe and wonder? Are you filled with gratitude and appreciation?
What is the most important day of your life?
So what are you going to do with it?