You still occasionally hear a presider say it. After we’ve all made our way into the church, greeted each other, listened to the introductions, and sung, vigorously or tentatively, a processional song, he will speak words to this effect: “Let us begin as we begin all things, in the name of the Father...” I always do a double take, and probably a head shake. I mean, I'm a cradle Catholic, and I don’t begin all things “In the name of the Father...” For instance, I don’t begin my shower that way. I don’t begin to watch The Simpsons that way. I don’t begin a trip to the grocery store that way (though some nights, with the roads as icy as they can be, it mightn’t be a bad idea.) No, we don’t begin all things with the sign of our faith. What we do begin is life in Christ with that sign, and there is the connection between the cross and baptism, between baptism and the Eucharist, and the identity of all of us gathered to celebrate.
The sign of the cross is not how we begin everything. It’s how we are begun, it’s how we were made into a “we,” and how we make a sign of that “we.” It is our beginning, our common beginning, and it’s a sign of a cross, a sign that makes us say God’s name with it, as though to say (pardon my paraphrasing): Jesus Christ crucified is the image of the unseen Triune God, and his Spirit brings us together to live in that mystery. Let's wrap our minds around those words, before we do anything else at mass other than sing our community into a waking awareness! It’s better than we thought.
I suggest trying to take the view of Lent from the end of the journey, eyeing the symbols of Lent through the events of Holy Week and Pentecost, the same events that allow the liturgy to exult on Holy Thursday, “We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection.” So many pieces, such richness of imagery, to try and explore, juggle, and mine for meaning in life, ritual, and music! The voice at the Jordan, the spirit that drives into the desert, the voice in the desert with its empty promises, the voice on the mountaintop, living water, light and vision, life out of the tomb. The activity of the Spirit of the messiah, breathed out from the cross, breathed out in the resurrection upon the church, doing its work of reconciliation and bridge-building. And the cross itself, the “no” of Christ to Caesar and his collaborators, the “yes” to the one who calls him “beloved,” the trust that is gloriously affirmed on the morning of the third day.
And it all starts in ashes, with an admonition to “remember that we are dust,” already mixing our metaphors and clouding the issue. Is it the dust of Genesis, from which God really makes humanity, again? Or is it the ashes of the world, the destruction we’ve caused and hope to leave behind, that are smudged onto our foreheads in the cruciform sign of baptism? Both? Maybe it doesn’t matter, since we’re all made, every human being, of stardust, of the indestructible and eternal stuff of the universe, quanta within the microcosmos of hydrogen and helium and the atomic detritus of the Big Bang. “When I look into the sky, the moon and stars you have made, I wonder what we humans might be that you even notice us or care?” (Psalm 8, my paraphrase) Maybe God looks at us and sees stars, or maybe s/he looks at stars and sees us! To stardust we shall return. Just because that sounds new age-y doesn’t make it less true - the atoms that pass through us, that make and remake us, are the same that Confucius, Moses, David, Paul, and Francis of Assisi breathed, and we’re made of the dust that they have become. The blood of Christ, probably, in some form or another, physically flows in us.
But however much that is true, it is only a metaphor for the great unity forged in us at creation, making us children of the same Father, all beloved, all gifted, all sent, a unity consecrated and made explicit in baptism. Clearly, as there were for Jesus, there are satanic theologies competing for our allegiance. They depend on us to forget who we are, to lose our way in the desert rather than find it. Being God’s “chosen one” for Satan means having power, being full, daring to try and force God’s hand; for Jesus, it means remembering who is God, and who is human, knowing that to be human is to be held in the hand of God, and then choosing to embrace humanity in its hunger, powerlessness, and unknowing. To be God’s chosen means to be fully human, so that God’s work can make us divine. To try to take a shortcut is to build a tower named Babel, or to melt our good fortune into a metal cow and bow down in worship of it.
Forty days in the wilderness. Cross and water, dust and ashes, angels and demons, music and silence. Here we go again. This time, Lord, change our hearts.
Last year's Ash Wednesday post, "The Shadow on the Mountain". Click here.