We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. … As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent. That is the language of religion. It teaches us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark period of life. These dark periods are good teachers. Religious energy is in the dark questions, seldom in the answers. Answers are the way out, but … when we look at the questions, we look for the opening to transformation. –Fr. Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs (45)
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Within the church calendar, Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas. It is a period of preparation. For the cross. For the resurrection.
A period of preparation that serves as a memento mori: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The story that begins with the God of the universe putting on human flesh and entering the world through blood and water (as all of us, sons and daughters of Eve, must do), ends as all human stories must: with death.
Most of our great narratives, our myths, our epics, our hero tales, are stories about humanity trying to escape our fated end. Trying to win out over our own mortality. (Avengers: Infinity War anyone?) If we succeed, it’s to hold off the inevitable for an hour or a day or a decade, but death, like Beowulf’s dragon, always comes for us in the end.
This Lenten story, however, which ends as all human stories must, is fundamentally different than a hero’s story, because here, the one hero who could actually escape humanity’s fate, the one hero who is not, in fact, mortal, lays down that immortality and chooses death. Submits to full humanity.
So doing, death, humanity, Christ himself, are each transformed. But it’s a transformation that comes through, and not around, the grave.
My point? I’ve been reminded recently by Fr. Richard Rohr (among others) that Christianity — this religion predicated on following the footsteps of Christ — is about descent and not ascent.
It is about surrender, it is about gratitude, it is about becoming nothing because “when we are nothing we are in a fine position to receive everything from God” (Rohr 77). It is about growing “by subtraction much more than by addition” (Rohr 121).
I will never challenge anyone’s right to question the presence of evil in the world — the presence of suffering. But while theodicy attempts to offer a systematic, theological construct capable of holding — of answering — those questions, God’s answer was sacramental. Incarnational. God’s answer was to put on flesh and blood and hold the suffering itself. To put on human feet and walk into the suffering, walk through it. And, in walking through it, allow it to shape, change, and transform.1
This, stipulates Rohr, is the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ: “So much is happening on earth that cannot be fixed or explained, but it can be felt and suffered. I think a Christian is one who, along with Jesus, agrees to feel, to suffer the pain of the world” (151-152).
The Paschal mystery is the mystery of transformation in and through the ashes. If Lent is the somber reminder of our human condition, then Easter declares that there is hope, but that hope lies not in escaping our humanity but in journeying through it. As Rohr implies in the quote at the top of the page, answers may be a way out of the dark, but they are not the way into transformation. Transformation requires we walk into, we walk through: “We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the perilous dark path of true prayer” (46).
Pain and suffering, says Rohr, are “the two primary paths of transformation” (115) and Rachel Held Evans reminds us, in Searching for Sunday, that healing comes when we “enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.”
Anoint it as holy.
What would happen if we really believed that? That our suffering, our neighbors’ suffering, was holy? Holy not because God delights in suffering but because God came and joined us within it. Holy in the same way the Eucharist is holy — the spilled blood, the broken body — because Christ comes and meets us there. Not symbolically, but sacramentally. Incarnationally.
So, today, whether you will receive the imposition of ashes or not, remember that you are mortal. That you are human (with all the perils and frailty the term implies). And remember that being human is a holy thing. That our mortality is a holy thing.2 Sanctified by the One who came, the One who died, and the One who rose again.
May we all have courage to face our deaths and walk more fully into life.
1. Christ’s risen body is a mystery of flesh and spirit that bears its scars at the right hand of the Almighty. The incarnated Christ is thus ever, it seems, and for all time, both fully human and fully God.
2. Here’s a quote to wrestle with (if you’re feeling particularly strong of heart):
We do not really know God except through our own broken and rejoicing humanity. In Jesus, God tells us that God is not different from humanity. Thus Jesus’ most common and almost exclusive self-name is “The Human One,” or “[Child] of Humanity.” He uses the term seventy-nine times in the four Gospels. Jesus’ reality, his cross, is to say a free ‘yes’ to what his humanity finally asks of him. It seems that we Christians have been worshiping Jesus’ journey instead of doing his journey. The first feels very religious; the second just feels human, and not glorious at all. (Rohr 19-20)