Into both March and Lent.
May we go with wisdom.
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
4:3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
4:4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,
4:6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
4:7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;
4:9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
4:10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Today is Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting, is the first day of Lent in Western Christianity. It occurs 46 days (40 fasting days, if the six Sundays, which are not days of fast, are excluded) before Easter and can fall as early as February 4 or as late as March 10. Ash Wednesday is observed by many Western Christians, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics.
According to the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus Christ spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent originated as a mirroring of this, fasting 40 days as preparation for Easter. Every Sunday was seen as a commemoration of the Sunday of Christ’s resurrection and so as a feast day on which fasting was inappropriate. Accordingly, Christians fasted from Monday to Saturday (six days) during six weeks and from Wednesday to Saturday (four days) in the preceding week, thus making up the number of 40 days.Orthodox do this 40 days in a row.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and placing them on the heads of participants to the accompaniment of the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Yesterday was Fat Tuesday, Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, or Fausnaught Day, depending where you live. These names all signify the attempt to get something fattening or sweet to eat before Lent begins. I suspect, however, that many people who ate donuts and sweets yesterday are not planning to give them up for Lent and some have no idea what Lent is and why it is significant. If you were in New Orleans yesterday it was Mardi Gras, which takes the above idea to all kinds of extremes. And I doubly suspect that many people at Mardi Gras also have no intention of giving up something for Lent.
Ash Wednesday is supposed to be a beginning of self-reflection, a time of concentrated repentance. Some will go to church today and receive ashes as a mark of their repentance. Some will wash them off immediately; others will wear them all day. The ashes are supposed to signify our need to repent. But as happens for many of us in life, we go back and do the same things that we repented of.
With that in mind, I thought I would offer some wisdom on repentance from Jewish sages. All but the first are from the Babylonian Talmud.
Ben Sirach 34:25-26
He that washes himself after the touching of a dead body, if he touch it again, what is the point of his washing? So is it with a man that fasts for his sins, and goes again, and does the same: who will hear his prayer? or what does his humbling profit him?
Rabbi Adda b. Ahaba also gave a similar statement:
One who sins and confesses his sin, but does not repent may be compared to a man holding a dead reptile in his hand, for although he may immerse himself in all the waters of the world his immersion is of no avail unto him; but if he throws it away from his hand then as soon as he immerses himself in forty se’ahs of water, immediately his immersion becomes effective. (Ta’anith 16a)
Our brethren, neither sackcloth nor fasting are effective but only penitence and good deeds, for we find that of the men of Ninevah scripture does not say, And God saw their sackcloth and fasting, but, God saw their works that they turned from their evil way. (b. Ta’anith 16a)
This last one is my favorite.
Rabbi Eliezer said:
Repent one day before your death. His disciples asked him, Does then one know on what day he will die? Then all the more reason to repent today, he replied, lest he die tomorrow and thus his whole life is spent in repentance. (b. Shabbath 153a)
Marked by Ashes
Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day…
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.
This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.