Lent begins with ashes and “dust.” It begins with a disturbing God.
He is disturbing and unsettling. Why? Because He addresses sin. He names it.
When Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, precisely as the Serpent promised, “their eyes were opened,” and yet what they “saw” was not what they had been promised; rather, they only “knew that they were naked.”
Then follows the cover-up and the hiding. No discussion, no reflection, no naming of what they had done. All must be “forgotten.”
Even if one were to smirk at a claim to this story’s historicity, there is an undeniable universality to this narrative: we–every last one of us humans–have known, in a very visceral and irrevocable way, the excruciating “knowledge” of boundaries crossed, of obtaining a perverse, unexpected “knowledge.” We have foolishly “explored” and discovered what we cannot undiscover.
And there is no turning back.
But we pretend to live on as though nothing happened. Sowing fig-leaves and hiding from our Creator–and yet nothing has happened, right? “I don’t know what the big deal is–do you? We’re fine. I’m fine.”
And nervously, even callously, we distract ourselves.
But God, desiring closeness and relationship with Adam and Eve, calls out to them. Because of God’s (once wonderful but now disturbing) desire for closeness and relationship (after all, he had made them for himself), it will all come out.
The hiding, the fig-leaves–the entire charade will end.
The dialogue that follows between God, Adam, Eve and the Serpent is painful to read. God minces no words; there is no playful banter, no beating around the bush, no sweeping under the carpet. It is, to say the least, awkward. God ignores Adam and Eve’s blame-shifting and selective truth-telling. He names evil and addresses it, cursing and humbling the Serpent and impairing Adam and Eve in their unique God-given roles, concluding:
“You are dust, and to dust you will return.”
This sobering reality, a fulfillment of his promise of punishment to Adam, becomes the unchanging backdrop for the rest of humanity’s story. Adam and Eve, in defying their Creator’s will, find themselves in a freefall of decay. Deterioration. Death. Once again, this is the backdrop, the canvass against which the rest of the human story will be played out.
As sobering as it is, one must admit that it is a truly spectacular way to begin a story. The Story. As with any truly great story, so many questions arise in the listener’s mind, so many possible scenarios: What good can possibly come from all of this? How could any of this possibly be undone?
But for all the uncertainties and possibilities, the central fact must not be lost: the act that precipitated this freefall was a departure from the divine will.
For Adam and Eve knew better than God. He had failed them. He had kept something from them. He could not be trusted. He didn’t know what He was doing. The breathtaking creation, the blissful and bountiful garden, the glory and honor He had given them in relation to the world, the perfect intimacy and union they enjoyed–nakedness without shame–all of this was a mirage: God had it out for them. He had deprived them of the one thing they knew they needed.
And so they disobeyed.
As a pastor, I regularly witness the horrific consequences of sin. In the midst of the carnage, either its victims or witnesses will ask me why: why did s/he have that affair? why won’t s/he stop returning to that substance? why are they so blind to their own self-righteousness? why can’t they just say they are sorry? why is daddy moving out–why can’t he stay at home with us?
All are essentially asking: why won’t they just obey God?
Behind this question is the assumption that there is a logic to disobedience, that disobedience somehow makes sense, that there is a rational explanation for sin. What is that explanation? How does the story of Adam and Eve answer that question?
It doesn’t. It doesn’t even try. And I suspect that that’s the point: sin is by its very nature irrational, insane, utterly inexplicable. One will never “figure out” sin.
I can remember a conversation with a husband who had an affair with a woman in his workplace. He said to me, “I have run all of this through my head a thousands times trying to figure it out, and I just can’t make sense of why I did what I did. I just can’t figure it out. I don’t understand it.”
Ash Wednesday awakens us to the insanity of sin: the freefall of deterioration and death in which we find ourselves is rooted in an inexplicable, insane departure from the Creator’s will. It is an insanity within us all and, therefore, uniting all of us: young and old, great and small, every tongue, tribe, people and nation, those who have gone before and those who will follow. And our Creator rightly refuses to sweep it under the carpet:
“You are dust. And to dust you shall return.”
To return to sanity, then, would be to surrender our will to His. No negotiations. No extenuating circumstances. No reservations or hesitations:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire…
burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, ‘I have come–it is written about me in the scroll.
I delight to do your will, my God. Your law is within my heart.” – from Ps. 40
“The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul…
The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart…
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold…
By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.” – from Ps. 19
“I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.
I will speak of statutes before kings and will not be put to shame,
for I delight in your commands, because I love them.” – from Ps. 119
“‘My food,’ Jesus said, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” – John 4.34
“‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.'” – Mark 14.36
“‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Jesus asked. Pointing to his disciples he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.'” – Matthew 12.49-50
Re-reading T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” this morning, it was staggering to see how well he captures the struggle of Ash Wednesday–the struggle to surrender to God’s will. His despairing lack of desire for change is echoed in the repeated “turn” that he doubts will happen: “Because I do not hope to turn…”
T. S. Eliot
Because of this he seeks prayer:
“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”
He then tells of the carnage of life in a fallen world, of life that abandons the divine will: he explains to a mysterious woman (the church?) of how three leopards (which I suspect represent lust–per Dante’s Inferno) have utterly eviscerated him:
“Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull.”
Eliot has been completely devoured by his own desires.
They have left him to be a mere carcass. And yet in the midst of the carnage he wrestles on, “wavering between the profit and the loss” of surrender to God. He concludes, speaking again to the woman (again, whom I take to be the Church), the source of life and flourishing:
“Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.”
Eliot asks that his life not be marked by “falsehood” but by a proper care for what is (and what is not) important, by a patience in the midst of trials (to “sit still among these rocks”). And citing a famous line from Dante’s Paradiso, he abandons his own will, daring to believe that He will find rest, life, flourishing –in a word, peace–only by surrendering to the divine will:
“Our peace in His will.”
Most of all, Ash Wednesday summons us to follow–with no hesitation or qualification–the only One who did give himself fully to the divine will, to the way of Love.
And on this way of Love he gave himself over to death and thereby opened the way to Life.
Ash Wednesday confronts us: in the midst of the freefall of deterioration and death, will we abandon the insanity of our sin and follow Him in this way of Love that others may know this way of Life?