Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thus Begins the Journey

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

For many, Ash Wednesday is very nearly comical especially if done in the morning because it gives folks all day to make wise cracks about the “smudge” on our foreheads while trying not to be disrespectful of our faith or our religion. Still, even among the faithful Ash Wednesday is not taken very seriously. It has, unfortunately, been reduced to little more than a dogmatic “something we do”, sort of like “opening ceremonies” into that strange time in the church calendar called Lent. Lent will still be Lent whether we attend an Ash Wednesday service or not.

The significance of Ash Wednesday is epitomized in what Jesus is teaching the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, summed up in vs. 21: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, but there is much more to the significance of Ash Wednesday, far more than a mere mark of time or smudge on the forehead. Before we can enter into the season of Lent and begin that incredible – and, yes, necessarily painful - journey to the Cross, there is something we must be mindful of first.

This small passage [from Matthew] is taken too often to mean exclusively material possessions. This is not entirely wrong, of course, but there is no single category exclusive to this passage because our hearts are broad and our desires varied. It is not only material possessions that come between us and the Lord. I recall a political science class I took a few years ago in which the instructor challenged us to name just one part of our lives that is not affected by politics. Whether or not we would agree with any particular public policy was not the point. The point was simply that there is no portion of our lives that is not addressed or affected, directly or indirectly, by public policy. In this same vein, then, it is reasonable to conclude that there is no thing and no person that does not have at least the potential to come between us and the Lord.

It has been debated in philosophy and theology whether we are bodies with souls – or – souls with bodies. The debate centers on which is purposeful and which is incidental, which is primary and which is secondary. Can one act independently of the other? If so, which one is dependent? In other words, does the body tell the soul how the cow ate the cabbage – or – does the soul inform and influence the actions of the body? Obviously the answers will depend on one’s perspective. The Talmud offers this much: The character of a life depends upon the care which the individual devotes to keeping his soul pure and unstained.

Throughout other Talmudic literature there are taught the distinctions between the soul and the body, the soul being that portion of us which enables us to choose the good and reject the evil. However, we are painfully aware of that other certain fact: we have minds filled with thoughts, principles, and ideals that are imparted to us as we grow and learn. We are influenced by our senses that pick up on things which please us, things which seem to make perfect sense and fit so well into our lives, especially since we also live in a world in which it is proclaimed as a virtual doctrine and virtue of man: look out for #1.

Clearly our bodies (including our minds) are influenced by external forces that surround us throughout our lives while our souls, imparted to us from Heaven, come predisposed toward good and equipped with the ability to identify and reject evil. Somewhere along the line, it becomes a matter of will. The struggle which seems to be inherent to our very existence, body and soul, from the beginning is a matter of worldly influence and spiritual contemplation.

This all brought to mind the movie, “Radio”, with Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Cuba played the part of “Radio”, a mentally handicapped man who was befriended by “Coach” Ed Harris. Long story made short, “Coach” came to realize while we may presume to have the desire and the need to “teach” such folks as “Radio”, in reality it is folks like “Radio” who teach us – if we are willing to learn. “Radio” was not the handicapped one; it is we who are handicapped who are unable or unwilling to see, and be influenced by, the goodness that surrounds us. As “Coach” pointed out, “Radio treats us ALL THE TIME the way we wish we treated each other even PART OF THE TIME.” We of a more cynical if worldly nature, we who call ourselves “normal”, have been conditioned and have conditioned ourselves toward survival and self-indulgence. This is the body which is at odds with that predisposed and divine soul.

Ash Wednesday is an important discipline that helps us to begin the incredible journey called Lent by challenging us to empty ourselves of all those conditions, those things, those persons, those influences that serve to do little more than to separate us from the Holy. It is the time when we are reminded of the curse of our humanity, that free will curse that chose knowledge over faith, when humanity chose the mortal body over the immortal soul. It is where the truly desired “treasure” of self was chosen, and humanity was cast out – body AND soul – from Paradise, that perfect place and state of being for which we were created in the very beginning.

It is the time when we are reminded that our bodies are simply the dust of the earth, to which they are destined to return. That is the value and worth of our mere mortal bodies in the realm of eternity. The state of our souls, however, will be determined by how we navigate this incredible journey and how near to the Cross we will choose to go.


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