Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday: Fully Human...

Our theology says: Jesus was fully human and fully divine.  
What exactly does that mean??

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
I think we at least partially understand that to say Jesus was “fully divine,” means that Jesus was God revealed in human flesh.  We could write volumes on the divinity of Jesus, but Ash Wednesday is the gateway to the season of Lent in our liturgical year, and a time when Christians have traditionally focused on our own humanity—and our mortality. 

The tradition in many churches is to place ashes on the forehead of each worshipper and for the pastor to say: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  It reminds us, in case we forget, of our human limitations but it also promises that God can take our dust, transform it, and use it to his glory—2 Corinthians 4.

Pardon my dust, excuse the mess
we're making somethin' new out of all of this
I'm saying my prayers, and I'm trying to change
so give me some time, 'cause I'm still finding my way
—Pardon My Dust, Chris Rice

Ash Wednesday is also an opportunity to center our focus on the humanity of Jesus.  The stretch of liturgical calendar between Christmas and Easter lifts up the Earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth—his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection.

On Christmas, we remember that Jesus was born just like each one of us.   In fact, the circumstances surrounding his birth were far from ideal.  He was born to young parents and had to flee to escape infanticide imposed by Herod, and lives as a refugee in Egypt for quite a while.  This difficult childhood experience helps Jesus to empathize with marginalized people everywhere, and those who suffer under unjust rulers. 

Jesus grows up with family and friends, just like you and me.  Scripture doesn’t tell us too much about that time.  We’re left to imagine how it might have been.  From Luke’s account, we’re told that Mary senses from the beginning that Jesus is special, but I don’t think she fully understands who Jesus is.  I imagine, like any mom, she tries to shelter her son for as long as possible from his “destiny.”  She wants him be just another Jewish boy in Nazareth. And I like to think of Jesus as an ordinary kid—albeit he probably has a strange sense of “something more” that surfaces as he comes of age. During these hidden years, Jesus undoubtedly goes through many of the same things that every child and youth experiences, and in so doing he learns more about what it is to be a human being. 

When Mark (probably the earliest Gospel) begins his story of Jesus, the author doesn’t begin with the birth.  He simply assumes Jesus is…   (His readers would have taken this for granted perhaps?) When we meet Jesus in Mark, the action is already ongoing!  The hour is late… and the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Jesus is a man on a mission, coming to John the Baptist for baptism, and calling on some select individuals to follow him.  This band of men travel all over the Galilee teaching, helping, and healing, and modeling a new way of living that runs counter to what the world considers “normal.”  But there’s something about this way of life that get’s people’s attention.  Some people love it (often the poor)… others (often the powerful) hate it.

Yes, the disciples learn from Jesus as they travel; but is it possible that Jesus also learns from them? Don’t these years on Earth, walking “in our shoes,” teach him profound lessons about what it mans to be human that he could not have learned if he remained separate from us?

On several occasions, Jesus takes the disciples further away from home than they have ever been—out of their comfort zone perhaps.  On one of those “road trips,” Jesus takes his closest friends (Peter, James, and John) on a special journey, and they are permitted a glimpse of the “fully divine” Jesus that no one else gets to see.   They have what we might call a “mountaintop experience,” where they see Jesus in a new light, lifted high above all other great men that have come before—e.g., Moses and Elijah. 

But the Transfiguration experience seems to be the exception not the rule. Especially in Mark’s Gospel, for most of their time together, the disciples experience a Jesus who seems much more human than divine[1].

After the Transfiguration, it’s back to business as usual—again, especially evident in Mark’s telling of the story.  If anything, the path gets more difficult for Jesus and his followers from this point forward, as they walk the way toward Jerusalem—the way that will take them from the heights of divine glory and inspiration on the Mount of Transfiguration to the depths of human depravity and despair at Calvary.  Jesus knows the path he is walking and he tries to get his followers to understand—but it is just as difficult for them as it is for us today. 

Jesus knows this is why he has come. In order to become “fully human” he must experience everything that we experience—and that includes suffering and death. 

Despite his friends objections,  Jesus—the “fully divine”—must now allow himself to be stripped of everything so that he can at last be “fully human”—and in doing so he opens up the way for you and I to become fully alive as human beings.

And that I believe is the essence of Ash Wednesday and Lent.  The ashes on our forehead can be a public symbol of our solidarity with Jesus.  (So, don’t be too quick to wash them off!! J) They symbolize our desire to, once again, strip away all that impedes us from being “more divine,” and to be set free to become the fully alive human being that God created us to be. 

Blessings to one and all as we begin the 2013 Lenten Journey.

[1] John’s Gospel presents Jesus as being much more “in control” and conscious of his “full divinity” from the very beginning. Mark’s Jesus is not unaware of his divinity, but seems much more reluctant to “go public” with his identity—almost as if he is trying to keep it a secret until the time is right.

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