This week we began the penitential season of Lent. We mark these forty days with Ash Wednesday, a day in which we recall our bodily mortality. So this last Wednesday I knelt with my fellow parishioners and raised my forehead to the priest, who marked me with a cross of ashes, saying, “Remember o man, that dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” (God’s words to Adam and Eve, Genesis 3:19)
This is a powerful liturgical action and within this ritual lies the story of man – his birth, life, death, and resurrection.
Stories are satisfying accounts of life. We listen as children at bedtime, we listen around the campfire, we listen in conversation, always hoping to hear a story emerge. “Tell me a story…” “I’ve got this story to tell you…” “Have you heard the one about…” Stories explain the mysteries of life.
Stories are different from sentences strung together. Speech doesn’t always contain stories but stories usually lie behind the words, sometimes hidden.
It is said that we pass our culture to the next generation through our stories, for good or for ill. We want them to learn from our mistakes so we tell them about the dangers of speeding, the rewards of hard work, the joys and sufferings of love.
Sometimes we create stories without words, using rituals and traditions – family dinners at holidays, Fourth of July picnics, Graduations. These stories may be simple ones, but nevertheless vital to all of us: we gather, we share, we honor and celebrate, we un-gather. The movement, the gathering, becomes a story and in the celebration we find stories within the story. We announce our beliefs about ourselves through these rituals and traditions.
Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, and their very structure satisfies something within us. For we too have beginnings, middles, and ends. We travel through time in a linear direction. We are born, we live, and we die. We are familiar with the birthing and the living, but it is the last – the dying – that perplexes and confuses us most. How does the story end? Or more importantly, how does my story end?
So it was particularly striking this first week in Lent the three Old Testament readings appointed by our Book of Common Prayer for Morning Prayer on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the days immediately following our ashen Wednesday. As a preview, Evening Prayer on Wednesday told the story of Jonah and the whale, that tale of running away from God. Jonah runs, is thrown overboard and swallowed by the whale, repents, is spit out, and obeys God’s commands.
But we wake to Thursday morning and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Two angels in the form of handsome men visit Lot and his family to rescue them from the destruction soon to come. The angels arrive, escort Lot’s family across the plain to the mountains, and the cities are destroyed in a rain of fire and brimstone. (Earlier in the passage, Lot’s brother Abraham had bargained with God, crying what if there were fifty good men, shouldn’t they be saved…. finally negotiating to ten good men, shouldn’t they be saved… but that is another story, one of many Old Testament negotiations with God.)
Friday we wake to Abraham banning his concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael to the desert. Hagar cries to God and a well appears. The boy is saved, to become the father of a great nation.
And finally on Saturday God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. An Angel intervenes, a ram appears to be sacrificed, and Abraham has proved his love and obedience to God. He will be the father of a great nation, from which will come the savior of the world.
Beginnings, middles, and ends. These endings answer the question we long to ask, what is my end? For our world is full of fire and brimstone, full of estrangements and deserts, and full of moments of crucial choice, of life and death.
The good news for Christians is that our God of love is the ending of our story. God rescues us from the burning cities and leads us to the mountains, he gives us living water in the desert, and he provides himself as the sacrificial ram-offering.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. My body, made from the earth, will indeed return to the earth. The ashen cross on my forehead contains my salvific certainty, that Christ will lead me to heaven, my true end.